When it was announced that Illumination would be making a movie based on Nintendo’s flagship franchise, Super Mario Bros., fans were skeptical. Not only did Illumination seem like an odd fit for such an adaptation, but the Super Mario series – despite being the most successful and heralded series in video games – has had a rough history translating to other mediums. Millennials such as myself may have a nostalgic soft spot for The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but it’s not exactly the kind of show you would refer to when thinking of quality television. More infamously, Hollywood’s first attempt at adapting Super Mario Bros. (and indeed, their first attempt at adapting video games) resulted in the infamous 1993 live-action film, which was so far removed from the source material that Nintendo wouldn’t let Hollywood anywhere near its franchises for decades afterward.
How happy I am that, thirty years after Super Mario’s disastrous first attempt at a big screen adaptation, Nintendo fans finally have a Super Mario movie they can be proud of. Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a faithful adaptation of gaming’s best series, and a love letter to its peerless history. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is (almost) everything fans could want out of a Mario movie.
In The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the titular brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) have recently quit their job at the Wrecking Crew to start their own plumbing company. Mario is of course the headstrong and brave older brother, while Luigi is always well-meaning and supportive, but is more timid and lacks his brother’s strength. Both brothers live in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn with their parents and extended family, and though the brothers are optimistic and hopeful of their new plumbing ventures, their father (voiced by Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario in the video games) isn’t so supportive of their dreams. It doesn’t help that they are antagonized by their former boss, Foreman Spike (Sebastion Maniscalco).
The brothers Mario have the opportunity to prove their mettle at their new job, however, when a manhole leak floods Brooklyn. Mario and Luigi traverse the sewers to find the source of the problem, when they find themselves in a hidden chamber of seemingly abandoned pipes. One such pipe sucks the Mario Bros. into a ‘Warp Zone,’ where they become separated. Mario ends up in the magical realm of the Mushroom Kingdom, home of the mushroom-like Toads and the beautiful Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Luigi, meanwhile, winds up in the Dark Lands, home of the Koopa Troop and ruled with an iron fist by King Bowser (Jack Black). Bowser has recently stolen a Super Star, with which he hopes to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom. So Mario joins up with Princess Peach, along with the adventurous Toad (Keagan-Michael Key) on a quest to the Jungle Kingdom to win the aide of the Kong army, in hopes of defeating Bowser’s forces, saving the Mushroom Kingdom and rescuing Luigi.
It’s an incredibly simple plot, and its simplicity seems to be the main point of criticism leveled towards the film. But I find that a baffling complaint in this particular instance. Were we expecting a Granted, I understand that movies are a medium built on storytelling (as opposed to video games, which can tell stories but are built on interactivity and gameplay ideas above all else) – and animated films in particular have become deeper and more complex since the turn on the century – so perhaps a little more story was expected by some, but is it really necessary here? I don’t know, if I’m seeing The Super Mario Bros. Movie, basically the two things I’m hoping for are that it’s a fun movie, and that it’s faithful to the games. And I reiterate that The Super Mario Bros. Movie succeeds wildly on both fronts.
The film is, first and foremost, a loving tribute to the perennial video game series, and its rich history. It probably doesn’t hurt that Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto personally oversaw the film, and serves as executive producer. But it also seems that the people at Illumination are big Nintendo fans in their own right and know their stuff. The film is packed to the brim with elements, Easter eggs, cameos and callbacks to just about every nook and cranny of the Super Mario universe (as well as its parent series, Donkey Kong).
Going into The Super Mario Bros. Movie, I was worried that it would end up being a case of only referencing the obvious, such as Super Mario Bros. and maybe Super Mario World and Mario Kart, since those are the ones everyone and their grandmother knows. But the folks at Illumination have a deep knowledge of the series and did their research, because it would be easier to name the Mario games that aren’t referenced or outright depicted than the many that are. Everything from Super Mario 64 to Luigi’s Mansion to The Super Mario Bros. Super Show gets a shoutout. And it’s pleasantly surprising that even more modern Mario games are mentioned like Super Mario Galaxy, 3D World, Donkey Kong Country Returns and a surprising number of references to Super Mario Odyssey. The presence of Foreman Spike alone is the kind of esoteric callback that Super Smash Bros. wouldn’t dare to make anymore.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is effusive towards its source material, and that’s perhaps most present in the film’s soundtrack, which is sublime. Composed by Brian Tyler, the score to The Super Mario Bros. Movie is one of the best film scores in recent memory, no doubt aided by how it weaves in many of the timeless tunes from the video game series (which I won’t spoil here, but suffice to say the music also references every generation of Mario). The film also features some great original music as well. Perhaps my only gripe to the score is that a few popular songs are incorporated into a couple of moments in the movie (I would have stuck with original music and that from the games), but at least the songs used are all from the 80s, which feels more appropriate than if they had used music from today.
I also have to compliment the film’s voice cast. Although the casting became something of a meme when it was first announced (particularly Pratt as Mario), I think for the most part they do an excellent job. Pratt leans into the Brooklyn aspect of Mario and gives his voice more weight. Although he doesn’t sound like Charles Martinet, he actually does the job at making you forget it’s Chris Pratt you’re hearing. Charlie Day captures Luigi’s loveable and naive personality, while Anya Taylor-Joy gives Peach a rougher edge, but it works for this version of the character. Keagan-Michael Key has somehow found a way to make a ‘Toad voice’ that works for a feature film, and I think it goes without saying that Jack Black as Bowser ends up stealing the whole movie. Not only does Black sound unrecognizable for the most part (only weaving his natural voice into things when Bowser loses his cool, which is a nice touch), but he manages to capture Bowser’s personality as an insecure bully effortlessly.
Also in the cast are Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, Fred Armisen as ‘King’ Cranky Kong, and Kevin Michael Richardson as Kamek. Armisen makes Cranky Kong appropriately, well, cranky. And Richardson has the unique position of giving Kamek a proper voice for the very first time, effectively making the character Bowser’s sycophantic lackey who wants nothing more than to make his boss happy. Seth Rogen is admittedly the one voice that maybe could have given more effort. Rogen does seem to try and add a more youthful energy to Donkey Kong than he does his other voice roles, but there are unfortunately two instances where we have to hear that damn laugh, which does kind of take you out of things a little. Still, it hardly ruins the movie.
Another highlight of the film is the animation itself. Illumination has a knack for making lively and vibrant animated worlds, and with Super Mario as the backdrop, it seems to be their perfect canvas. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not only Illumination’s best-looking feature, but one of the most colorful visual spectacles in recent memory. Super Mario 3D World seems to be the primary inspiration for the film’s version of the Mushroom Kingdom, but all of Mario’s history is drawn upon visually to create a film that is pure joy to look at from the very first frame onwards.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is, quite simply, a real treat. It’s a loving gift to the adults who grew up with Super Mario Bros. and for the children who are growing up with Super Mario Bros. Does the film make a few missteps? Sure. Though I don’t think a deep and complex story was necessary, I understand why some audience may have wanted a little more story. Mario and Princess Peach’s relationship never quite clicks in the way it should (there’s only a couple of brief glimpses of the “friends who like each other but are too shy to confess their feelings” aspect that seems like it should have been more prevalent). And some may question why Luigi was chosen to be kidnapped in the very first movie, since it means the Super Mario Bros. don’t have a whole lot of screen time together (in fact, by the end of things, the film seems closer to the “Super Mario and Donkey Kong Movie”).
Still, these are things that can be fleshed out and expanded on in the inevitable sequels and spinoffs (a Donkey Kong Country movie next, please!). For now, we should just savor the fact that Super Mario Bros. has finally made a faithful transition to the silver screen. After all, for thirty years Mario fans had to accept Dennis Hopper with weird hair as the cinematic form of Bowser, so the King Koopa’s appearance alone is reason to rejoice.
Last year, I claimed that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was the best video game movie, and the most pure fun I’ve had in a movie in years. And now I’m feeling the same way all over again for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. There’s room for the next big screen outing for Mario and friends to improve on certain things, but as far as living up to its name as The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the film is most certainly a superstar.
I promise I will get back to reviews and such soon. Life gets rough sometimes. I have a lot of catching up to do for this site, but I plan on doing just that (catching up, that is). And yes, this is the third post celebrating a twentieth anniversary for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in one form or another (I wrote about the anniversaries of its original Japanese release, its US release, and now from my own personal first viewing of it). Like I’ve said in the past, it’s my favorite film of all time (and I’ve seen many a movie) and has been my biggest creative influence for twenty years now. In fact, this site and all my writing exits because of the impact Spirited Away had on me. So bear with me.
Of course, I already wrote a piece about my personal history with Spirited Away five years ago (on the fifteenth anniversary of when I first saw it. Math), which I technically wrote elsewhere five years before that… Anyway, you can read that here. So I’ll try not to repeat myself and keep this short, but of course I had to acknowledge the twentieth anniversary of when I saw my favorite film here (and hey, this may help me get the ball rolling on the other things I’ve been meaning to write).
Yes, it was twenty years ago (March 31st, 2003) today that I first saw Spirited Away – that most magical of movies – during its brief theatrical re-release following its Oscar win. The odyssey of Chihiro Ogino remains so captivating, that these twenty years later, I feel like I’ve been spirited away myself.
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (which was actually the full title of the film when it was released under Disney. The more you know) was a massive success, becoming the most successful Japanese and non-English language film in history for nearly two decades. It continues to influence and inspire other works of art (whether in animation or in entirely different mediums) and has rightly earned its place in cinema history. It even inspired a stage adaptation in Japan just last year, which is seeing a limited theatrical release of its own in the US later in April (there’s a small dose of free advertisement for ya, GKIDS).
All those accolades can’t really measure up to how a work of art can impact individuals on a personal level though. And for me, I don’t think any work of art has impacted me quite so much. Although I’ve always prided myself as an imaginative person, the creative inspiration Spirited Away has given me kicked things into imagination hyperdrive. If I could one day create something that has even the tiniest fraction of impact on someone as Spirited Away has had on me… well, that’s all I could ever hope for.
To put it simply, Spirited Away will spirit me away forever.
2022 saw two very different cinematic takes on the classic story of Pinocchio: One was Guillermo del Toro’s unique stop-motion adaptation, and the other was the latest installment in Disney’s seemingly never ending live-action remakes of their animated back catalogue. While no Pinocchio adaptation will ever likely live up to Disney’s animated original, it’s somewhat ironic that between the two 2022 versions, it’s Guillermo del Toro’s film that more lives up to the Disney classic with its unique take on the material. Disney’s own remake, on the other hand, feels like it’s lifelessly going through the motions just to give Disney+ an extra piece of content.
As mentioned, Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio was another entry in their ongoing trend of live-action remakes, which have been a point of contention among Disney fans (if an animated classic is timeless, what’s the point of remaking it? Unless we’re buying into the blatant falsity that live-action somehow makes films more legitimate). To be fair, not all of Disney’s live-action remakes have been bad (the CG showcase that was 2016’s Jungle Book was a spectacle, and 2019’s Aladdin was enjoyable), but by and large these remakes feel mostly unnecessary. Sadly for Pinocchio, it proves to be the rule and not the exception, as it comes across as another live-action remake for the sake of another live-action remake.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the basic outline of Disney’s Pinocchio by this point, but here’s a quick synopsis anyway: an elderly Italian toymaker named Geppetto creates a wooden puppet he names Pinocchio. Gepetto wishes upon a star that Pinocchio could be a real boy, to fill the void Geppetto feels from not having a family (in this version, Geppetto has a dead wife and son, which feels unnecessarily cruel to the old man). The Blue Fairy answers Geppetto’s wish, brings Pinocchio to life, assigns Jiminy Cricket as Pinocchio’s conscience, and claims that if Pinocchio proves himself to be “brave, truthful and selfless” he will become a real boy. Naturally, there’s a lot of obstacles that get in the way of Pinocchio’s journey, among them a conman fox, a villainous puppeteer, an angry whale and a conniving Coachman, who takes children to Pleasure Island so that they may make literal jackasses of themselves so he can sell the children-turned-donkeys to salt mines. Yeah, Pinocchio was always a pretty eventful movie.
Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio more or less sticks to the 1940 original’s outline, but fails to capture the charm and spirit that has made the animated film endure for decades. Not even putting Robert Zemeckis – a man known for weaving story and visual effects together – in the director’s chair and casting Tom Hanks as Geppetto helps elevate this Pinocchio retelling into anything above average.
To be fair, Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio has its share of positives: Tom Hanks makes for a convincing Geppetto, and as odd a fit as it may sound, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great as the voice of Jiminy Cricket (Gordon-Levitt does a pretty spot-on Cliff Edwards impression). And for all the people who complain whenever an animated character is redesigned, this Pinocchio looks identical to the 1940 animated character. So you can’t say the film isn’t faithful there. The supporting cast also does there best to liven things up, with Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy, Keegan-Michael Key as the voice of Honest John the fox, and Luke Evans as the evil Coachman (Evans seems to be making a habit of playing the villains in Disney’s live-action remakes, previously portraying Gaston in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast). But really, there’s only so much they’re able to do to liven the film up.
The movie just falls flat at trying to capture the magic of the original at every turn. While When You Wish Upon a Star and I’ve Got No Strings are still present, the new songs added to the film are entirely unmemorable. And while the visual effects on Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Jiminy Cricket do their job, much of the CG in the movie looks surprisingly cheap and unconvincing (we all know Disney can afford better, and we all know Zemeckis can do better in this area). Things look particularly artificial once Pinocchio gets to Pleasure Island, which is created with CG that looks dull and outdated.
Even the themes and tone of the story feel skittish here. The original film is considered one of Disney’s darkest and scariest animated features, and while the new film makes token attempts to capture those elements, it is only willing to go so far. One of the most shocking moments in the original is when Pinocchio’s mischievous friend Lampwick gets turned into a donkey for “making an ass of himself” by smoking, drinking, gambling and causing damage across Pleasure Island. It’s a sad fate that befalls Lampwick, but it’s a fate he made for himself by his actions, which kind of hits home the whole point of Pinocchio’s journey. In the 2022 film, that same scene is played more for laughs, which pulls the rug out from under the scene and weakens its intended purpose in the story. It further cheapens things that Pleasure Island no longer serves cigars and alcohol, instead opting for the more PG root beer in their place. I get that it would be taboo to feature children drinking and smoking in a movie, but isn’t that the point? It’s bad behavior. It’s what Pinocchio needs to learn not to do. Drinking soda pop may not be good judgement in terms of health, but it’s hardly a moral conundrum in the same way alcohol can be.
I have to admit there are a couple of changes that I appreciate. As classic as the 1940 film is, it always annoyed me how the Blue Fairy basically served as a deus ex machina when she rescued Pinocchio from a cage at the hands of Stromboli. Here that’s been changed to Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket using the puppet’s extending nose to reach a key, which makes the characters feel more crafty and independent (though having Pinocchio lie to make his nose grow to get out of the jam may be questionable in its own right). Without spoiling too many details, the ending of the film is even slightly changed in a way to question what it means for Pinocchio to be “real” (it’s a change that’s appreciated in concept, though could have admittedly been executed better). I also like that Geppetto’s infamous cuckoo clocks are now themed around various Disney references (though some of the fun of that idea is taken away when the film gives us too many close-ups of the clocks, which just gives away the references. And the fact that one clock features Roger and Jessica Rabbit only reminds us of an infinitely better Zemeckis film we could be watching). And I suppose Stromboli gets thrown in jail here, so at least one Pinocchio villain finally gets some comeuppance.
I certainly can’t say that 2022’s Pinocchio is the worst of Disney’s live-action remakes, but it does continue the sub-genre’s trend of creating a decidedly inferior version of a classic tale from Disney’s animated history. An unnecessary retelling that just kind of goes through the material, but without the beating heart of the Disney original.
That this live-action remake has made Pinocchio less “real” is an irony that probably won’t be lost on anyone.
I mean… Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everybody!
Today is the day in which we celebrate the special things in life: friends, family, peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, and jolly, overweight prowlers clad in red who deliver Playstations or coal underneath your decorative tree depending on whether you’ve been good or bad during the previous twelve months (Santa Clause is such a badass. He’s up there with Popeye in terms of badass-ery).
Christmas serves as a double celebration here at the Dojo, however, as it was on Christmas Day that I first launched Wizard Dojo! Well, technically I launched the site earlier in December of 2014, but I didn’t post any content on it until Christmas Day, to make it more special (and easier to remember). So Christmas is the “official” anniversary.
As is Wizard Dojo tradition, this most festive of days serves as an excuse to write some long-winded babbling, compile some lists, give out some awards, and bombard you with gifs!
Before we get started, I’d just like to be serious for a (brief) moment and wish you all happy holidays.
Happy Rusev Day!
Happy everybody! Happy holidays to all, and here’s to a happy 2023! Hopefully in the next year this site will be more productive and not so reliant on movie and video game anniversaries for content.
Anyway, I’m rambling. Let’s move on to the Wizard Dojo Christmas festivities proper.
Chapter 1: The Best of Wizard Dojo in 2022
2022 may not have been Wizard Dojo’s most productive year (I hate how many years in a row I’ve had to say that), but I did write a few things that I think are worthwhile, if I say so myself.*
*it literally is only me who says so.
Here’s hoping that the Dojo’s 2023 will bear a little more fruit, but here’s the stuff I wrote in 2022 that I particularly liked.
Video Game Reviews
Video game reviews were once the bread and butter here at the Dojo, but sadly it seems I’ve slowed down considerably over the past few years in that regard. So I’ll make special note to rectify that in 2023. Including catching up on reviews for games released in 2022 and even 2021 (because how have I still not reviewed Metroid Dread?). At any rate, here are my video game review highlights of 2022.
I have a few mixed feelings about my movie review output this past year. On the plus side, I reviewed a decent amount of movies released during 2022, all things considered (though there are still a few I’ve been meaning to write on). On the downside, I only reviewed movies released in 2022. I usually have a couple of older movie reviews in the mix. Ah well, guess it’s just something else to prioritize in 2023.
“Other stuff” – the official, scientific terminology – suggests the majority of things I wrote that don’t fit squarely into the review territory. Mostly the aforementioned anniversary celebrations (I am a festive individual, after all), but some other nice things in there as well.
What, I have to explain to you what a list is? It’s like top 5s and top 10s and stuff of that nature. Unfortunately, I only wrote one such post this year, but it’s a good’n. After all, it’s about Kirby! So you can’t go wrong! Although I admit that my rankings of Kirby’s finest would be switched around slightly since I wrote it. Again, hopefully more lists next year.
He wanted to be the very best, like no one ever was. To catch them was his real test, to train them was his cause…
It was recently announced that Ash Ketchum and (even more surprisingly) Pikachu would soon be retired as the main characters of the Pokemon TV series, with new protagonists set to take over after an epilogue series of episodes for good ol’ Ash and Pikachu.
Yes, the twenty-five year journey of a ten-year old boy finally comes to a close, and I’m not even going to lie, my heart sank when I heard the news. Pokemon has been an indelible part of not only my childhood and those of my generation, but of every generation since. And while Nintendo and Game Freak may release new editions of the Pokemon video games every few years, and the show has seen numerous character (and animation) changes over the years, the one thing that has always been constant within the series were that Ash and Pikachu were at the heart of it. The fact that the series is moving on without them (particularly Pikachu, who became the mascot of the series and one of the most recognizable video game characters of all time because of the TV show), well, it’s a hard pill to swallow.
I admit, I haven’t seen the show in a very long time, but the fact that I haven’t seen it in so long and yet the news of Ash and Pikachu’s departure still got to me the way it did speaks volumes to the impact these characters had on me (and so many others).
I can remember how every kid wanted to be Ash growing up; the excitement to see Ash and Pikachu on the big screen in Pokemon: The First Movie (as well as its admittedly better sequel and threequel), and how sad everyone in the audience was when Ash seemingly died when he turned to stone, and Pikachu tried desperately to wake him up. As a kid, I even wrote and drew a few of my own Pokemon comic books, which of course starred Ash and Pikachu.
A few Nintendo franchises have seen some pretty big shifts over the last few years, such as Breath of the Wild’s departure from the usual Legend of Zelda traditions. But Pokemon without Ash? Pokemon without Pikachu? Now that’s a seismic shift. Hopefully Ash’s journey ends with he and Pikachu coming face-to-face with the legendary Ho-Oh, to bring the series full circle after their encounter with the mythical bird in the very first episode.
I tip my metaphorical hat to you, Ash and Pikachu. Thank you for the countless memories you have given to countless people for over two and a half decades. Pokemon may endure, but it won’t be the same without the story of a boy and his Pikachu at its center.
Please keep Team Rocket around though.
Chapter 3: When Love is Found
Let me start this chapter by saying that The Muppets Christmas Carol is one of the best damn Christmas movies ever made! Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is already one of the best stories ever, and with its seemingly countless cinematic revisions, it may seem like a bold statement to say that the version involving the Muppets may very well be the best version of A Christmas Carol put to film, but that may very likely be the case. It’s a fantastic interpretation of the classic tale in every sense of the word. From the surprising faithfulness to the source material to the good-natured humor that never gets in the way of serious moments, to Michael Caine being one of the best Ebeneezer Scrooge’s (playing the role straight against Muppets in a way that recalls Bob Hoskins interacting with cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), to that trademark charm of Jim Henson’s creations, The Muppets Christmas Carol has it all.
But for a long while, it didn’t.
That’s because one of the film’s most important moments was omitted from its original theatrical release, but left an impact on many a 90s child when it was included in the film’s original VHS release, only for it to be removed once again in all subsequent releases (to the befuddlement of that same generation of 90s kids).
I am, of course, referring to the musical number “When Love is Gone.” The song that takes place during Scrooge’s trip to his past, when he witnesses the moment he chose money over love. Sung by Scrooge’s one-time love, Belle (Meredith Braun), When Love is Gone is emphatically heart-breaking, especially once the elder/present day Scrooge breaks down into tears as he relives the pain of his past (and when Michael Caine cries, we all cry). It’s one of the most emotional moments in the movie, made all the more apparent as the film ends with a reprise dubbed “When Love is Found.” As a kid, it was one of the first moments I can recall in a movie that really touched me on a deeper emotional level.
So why was it removed in the first place? Because Jeffrey Katzenberg – who was a prominent figure at the Walt Disney Company at the time – found it to be “too sad.” Brilliant deduction there, Sherlock! That’s kind of the whole point! Of course it should be noted that Jeffrey Katzenberg is the same dude who wanted to remove “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid (y’know, the song that explains the premise of the entire movie!) and once he moved over to Dreamworks, was responsible for all those obnoxious, cynical animated films in the 2000s. So yeah…
Well, thankfully, we can all rejoice. On December 9th of this year, When Love is Gone was integrated back into The Muppets Christmas Carol on Disney+ in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary (and just out of common sense, I suppose). You just have to go to the film’s “Extras” section and select the “Full Length Version” of the film. I would call it the “As God Intended Version,” but that’s just me.
Because the song plays such an important role in the film’s narrative, and because I have such a strong emotional attachment to it, I had refused to watch The Muppets Christmas Carol – despite its overall quality – on Disney+ until it was made whole. I’ve had Disney+ since it launched, and The Muppets Christmas Carol has been on the service for just as long, but only now do I feel the film can be viewed properly. And I couldn’t be happier.
Chapter 4: WWE Awards for 2022
It seems like forever since I’ve written about pro wrestling here on this site, and that’s probably because I stopped watching it for a little while. WWE had become so wrought with dumb storylines, start-and-stop pushes for wrestlers, utterly dumbfounding booking (especially where Bray Wyatt was concerned), and so many wrestlers being released, that I had to tune out. I know, mainstream North American wrestling now has an alternative with AEW, and New Japan Pro Wrestling is bigger than ever, which is all well and dandy, but I was too burned out for anything wrestling related for a while.
But this past July, the biggest wrestling news story in decades occurred, as WWE Chairman Vince McMahon – whom wrestling fans have always known to have been a pretty terrible guy – was forced out of the company amid controversy. I won’t go into the details here, but when the WWE’s shakeup occurred (especially former wrestler Triple H being promoted to Head of Creative), it got me back into it. And boy (Uncle) Howdy, the difference is night and day! There are still mistakes here and there, of course, but they’re reasonable creative mistakes. Not the failings of an out-of-touch, petty, senile narcissist like they were not so long ago.
Currently WWE’s programming is still the only wrestling I regularly keep track of (no offense to any other wrestling promotions, there are just only so many hours in a day), so I refrain from calling these “Pro Wrestling Awards” and instead I’m just focusing on the WWE side of things.
Anyway, with my renewed interest in this most bizarre and interesting of entertainment industries, let’s get on with the awards.
Best Tag Team: The Usos
No surprise here, seeing as the Usos still currently hold the tag team titles of both the RAW and Smackdown brands, similar to how the “Tribal Chief” of the Bloodline still holds both of WWE’s world titles as of this writing (talking of which, either unify the titles or separate them again, WWE). The Usos’ reign with the Smackdown belts has now even become the longest tag team championship reign in WWE’s entire history. The Usos have continued to be booked as strong, underhanded heel champions, and as part of the Bloodline, are among the best things WWE has going.
Runner-up: The Street Profits
Best Stable: The Bloodline
In other news, the sky is blue. But seriously, the Bloodline actually had some competition this year, with WWE bringing back the idea of wrestling stables in full force (Imperium, The Brawling Brutes, The Judgement Day, etc.). But with Roman Reigns holding both of WWE’s world titles (with his reign as Universal Champion stretching well past two years, which is unheard of in modern wrestling), and the Usos holding both tag belts, they’ve basically been at the forefront of all of WWE’s major storylines this year. And with the additions of Solo Sikoa and Sami Zayn (the latter of whom may be the most entertaining performer in WWE today), not to mention perennial bad guy manager Paul Heyman by their side, the group is more prominent than ever. That will probably end come Wrestlemania, but it’s been a thrilling ride while it’s lasted.
Runner-up: The Judgement Day
Wrestler of the Year: GUNTHER
Although I still question why WWE changed WALTER’s name to GUNTHER, it ultimately doesn’t matter what his name is, because GUNTHER is the best wrestler on the planet today no matter what you call him. No other wrestler puts on as consistently brilliant, more hard-hitting matches. GUNTHER somehow makes his matches feel like both a work of art, and a man being mauled by a bear (with GUNTHER being the bear, of course). His showdown with Sheamus at Clash of the Castle has already been entered into the discussion of Best WWE Matches of All-Time, and his ongoing reign as Intercontinental Champion has given that belt a prestige it hasn’t had in decades. It basically feels as important as the world titles now. It’s hard to imagine (yet easy to believe) that Vince McMahon “didn’t get” GUNTHER, and was ready to bury him before Triple H took the reigns. Bullet dodged.
Runner-up: Bianca Belair
Sports Entertainer of the Year: Sami Zayn
Wrestling purists might not like it, but the goofier “Sports Entertainment” side of wrestling is still an integral part of wrestling. As far as that entertainment goes, no one stood out quite like Sami Zayn in 2022. His constant efforts to win over the Bloodline and ultimately being accepted by them as the “Honorary Uce” is wrestling’s best storyline of the year. It’s been so entertaining, in fact, that when the Bloodline inevitably turns on Sami (or Sami betrays the Bloodline from within), many people think Zayn should be the one to go on to Wrestlemania and dethrone Roman Reigns. I myself am very much in that same camp. The honor will probably go to someone else (Cody Rhodes seems likely), but the storyline for Sami has already written itself. I’ll keep my fingers crossed WWE will capitalize on Sami’s momentum.
Runner-up: The New Day
Best Event: Clash at the Castle
Although it sounds more like the name of a Japanese wrestling event (or the title of an indie game), Clash at the Castle was actually WWE’s first major Premium Live Event to take place in the UK in 30 years (Premium Live Event being the new name WWE gives pay-per-views, because who the hell orders pay-per views anymore?). WWE didn’t half-ass the opportunity for their long-awaited UK comeback either, delivering one of their best “PLEs” in years. Only six matches on the card, all of them ranking from ‘good’ (Liv Morgan vs. Shayna Baszler) to ‘all-time classic’ (GUNTHER vs. Sheamus). No filler in between matches, good booking, a notable heel turn (Dominik Mysterio). Just an excellent show.
Runner-up: Survivor Series WarGames
Match of the Year: GUNTHER vs. Sheamus (Clash at the Castle)
As soon as Sheamus became number one contender for GUNTHER’s Intercontinental Championship for Clash of the Castle, I knew it was going to be a great match. However, the bout exceeded all expectations, delivering one of WWE’s best matches ever.
From before the opening bell rang with GUNTHER and Sheamus’ cohorts (Imperium and the Brawling Brutes, respectively) flying all over the place as the two proper combatants just stared each other down until the last moment when GUNTHER finally put Sheamus away with a simple (yet devastating) clothesline, this match was just an all-out war.
Perhaps this isn’t the same kind of match that usually gets called a “work of art” (no aerial maneuvers, neither wrestler stepping outside of their usual moveset), but it deserves the moniker as much as any of them. You can probably count the number of different moves both men used during the match (kicks, knees, elbows, bodyslams, GUNTHER’s patented chops, etc.), but both men used their movesets in such a way to tell a compelling story. Both GUNTHER and Sheamus walked into the match as heels, but Sheamus’ valiant effort turned him into a hero even in defeat. It’s easily the best match of Sheamus’ career, and it’s up there with GUNTHER’s as well. It kickstarted a career renaissance for Sheamus, who has never been more popular than he is now because of this match (which,I repeat, he lost). Also of note, the match occurred a little over a month after Triple H took over creative control in the company. This match never would have happened under Vince McMahon. I think, years from now, this match will be viewed as a turning point for the promotion.
An absolute five-star classic.
Runner-up: Seth Rollins vs. Cody Rhodes (Hell in a Cell)
Chapter 5: My Most Anticipated Video Games of 2023
2022 was a great year for video games, and 2023 looks to continue its momentum. A number of high profile games have already been revealed, and who knows what else will be announced during the new year?
The following are the five games I’m most looking forward to in 2023. But first, a special mention goes to A Frog’s Tale, an indie game inspired by the Mario RPGs with a rhythm-based battle system, which would have made it onto my list except it’s only tentatively slated for 2023. So until something is made official, it’s in the runner-up spot.
Now, onto the top 5!
5: Pizza Tower
I remember my brother telling me about Pizza Tower about two years ago (it’s apparently been in active development since 2018), but as promising as it sounded, it also seemed like one of those games that would never be finished. Recently, however, a release date for Pizza Tower was revealed, and it’s pretty soon. January 2023!
Pizza Tower is an indie title inspired by the Wario Land sequels (which, looking back, I feel I underrated with my reviews. Something to revisit down the line). You play as a pizza man named Peppino trying to save his pizzeria from getting blown up or something. Like his inspiration Wario, Peppino can’t die, instead gaining transformations from enemy attacks (he can, however, lose the pizza topping he collects along the way).
A return to Wario Land gameplay feels long overdue as it is, so Pizza Tower is already appetizing. But throw on hilariously exaggerated character animations based on 90s cartoons, and Pizza Tower looks like something special.
4: Mina the Hollower
More indie goodness!
Mina the Hollower is the newest title from Yacht Club Games, the creators of Shovel Knight. Yacht Club Games have stated that, if Shovel Knight is the studio’s Mario, then they hope Mina will be their Legend of Zelda.
To be specific, Mina the Hollower looks – both in gameplay and visuals – to be inspired by the Game Boy Zeldas of yesteryear. With Gameboy Color-inspired visuals that harken back to Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, to a gameplay setup that will intentionally use as few buttons as possible, Mina the Hollower is already looking like a brand new treat from the kings of indie games.
3: Crash Team Rumble
The Crash Bandicoot resurgence continues! After the first three games in the series were gloriously remade for the Playstation 4 in 2017 as Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy, the one-time Playstation mascot has never looked back. A stellar remake of Crash Team Racing followed. After that, a brand-new adventure with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Now, Crash looks to take things to the multiplayer stage once again with Crash Team Rumble!
Admittedly, not a whole lot of details have been revealed for Crash Team Rumble, except that it sounds kind of like a Rocket League-type of team-based multiplayer game, where players take control of different Crash Bandicoot characters (each with their own special abilities), try to collect as much Wumpa fruit as possible, and deliver said fruit to your goal, all while stopping the other team from doing the same. Interestingly, it looks to have the same platformer-style gameplay as the core Crash series, and multiplayer platformers don’t get the love they deserve. Here’s hoping that changes with Crash Team Rumble.
2: Pikmin 4
There’s even less information on Pikmin 4 than there is on Crash Team Rumble. Basically all we know is that Pikmin 4 exists, and that the three original Pikmin types return, and a brief glimpse at some new environments. It’s not exactly a lot to go by. But for me, it’s more than enough to be excited.
We only get a new Pikmin game about once every decade (in this case literally, as 2023 marks 10 years since Pikmin 3 released on the Wii U, which in tern was nine years after Pikmin 2). So it’s always something to savor.
I can’t wait to see what new Pikmin types may be in store, and what crazy creature designs Nintendo has come up with this time. One thing’s for sure, Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong’s younger sibling series is definitely one to look forward to.
1: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
An easy choice for the top spot? Yes. But as I’ve said in the past, oftentimes the obvious choices are obvious for a reason.
It’s a new Legend of Zelda! That right there is reason enough to be excited! More specifically, it’s a rare direct sequel for the series, serving as a follow-up to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, one of the most acclaimed video games of all time. While I may not want every Zelda game going forward to use Breath of the Wild’s rulebook, I’d be a flat-out liar if I said I don’t want to see more of it.
It seems the big hook to Tears is that now Link can traverse the land above the sky of Hyrule itself, in addition to, well, Hyrule itself. That already makes the game massive, and one of the things I loved about Breath of the Wild is how it made that massive world feel alive with all the things you could do.
Granted, there are some Breath of the Wild quirks I hope get smoothed out (breakable weapons, horses not being worth the trouble, inclusion of proper dungeons), but if Nintendo can make one of the best games of all time even better, that right there is reason to celebrate.
Unless a Super Mario Odyssey 2 or an Elden Ring 2 or a new Donkey Kong Country is announced and released within the next twelve months, I don’t see anything else dethroning The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom as my most anticipated game of 2023.
Chapter 6: The Last One
Once again, my friends, we reach the end of our annual Christmas Special. I know, once upon a time these Christmas Specials had more chapters, plus an epilogue! I promise those days will return, hopefully next year. But in my defense, the newer Christmas Specials have a greater word count, and I’m (relatively) better at writing. So it’s a fair enough trade, I suppose. Plus, with all the stuff I currently have going on, I’m kind of surprised this Christmas Special managed to be as wordy and varied as it did.
So as we wrap up these Christmas festivities here at the Dojo, I’d just like to once again wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Whatever day you celebrate, I hope it’s as awesome as GUNTHER vs. Sheamus. And have an awesome New Year while you’re at it!
Here’s to a happy and awesome 2023 to the Dojo, and to you!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Wizard Dojo!
Well, this has certainly been a long time coming. James Cameron’s Avatar was released in 2009, introducing a new benchmark for visual effects. A film Cameron spent years planning, he literally waited until visual effects technology could keep up with his vision in order to make it. Upon release, Avatar smashed the worldwide box office, eventually becoming the highest-grossing film in history, overtaking Cameron’s own previous film, Titanic. Avatar would briefly lose the crown in 2019 to Avengers: Endgame but a re-release in China would bump Avatar back in the number one spot.
The interesting thing about Avatar is that, despite the ludicrous amount of money it made, it really didn’t leave much of an impact or influence on popular culture. Oh sure, the Avatar Land at Walt Disney World is cool, but as far as movies themselves go, has Avatar had any kind of lasting impact?
Truth be told, there may be a reason for that. For all its eye-popping visuals and boatloads of cash, Avatar was really just a so-so movie. Its man vs. nature story, while well intentioned with its environmentalism, had been told in much better stories in the past (most notably in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which Cameron claimed as one of his inspirations, yet a film that he could never hope to match in his wildest dreams). Avatar was a movie that borrowed story elements from other movies, and made them shallower and simpler (Avatar’s depiction of humans as nothing but irredeemable killing machines who only care about profit basically made them cartoon baddies, to the point it’s almost surprising the villain didn’t have a mustache he could twirl). In short, Avatar was a movie that used its brilliant visual effects technology to try and gloss over a not-so-brilliant story. Whereas works like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned Princess Mononoke all created worlds that felt alive because of their thematic and character depth, Avatar felt like a shallow spectacle. Pretty to look at, but not something that lingers in the mind or truly touches the heart.
Still, with all that money Avatar made, sequels seemed inevitable… until they didn’t. Despite James Cameron promising three (later four) sequels to Avatar not long after the original’s release, a number of issues (not least of which being the need to pioneer new technology for the sequels’ visual effects) meant delay after delay for the follow-up Avatar movies to the point that they became something of a running joke. But here we are in 2022, thirteen years later, and the second film in the Avatar series (shot back-to-back with the third) is finally a reality in the form of Avatar: The Way of Water.
The question is was Avatar 2 worth the wait? After all, the many delays to get to this point have more or less shown how little long-term impact Avatar really had on the world of cinema (despite Cameron’s – and other filmmakers’ – protests about Marvel, the MCU has proven to have had more influence on movies than his own work). Visual effects have also continued to move forward between Avatar films, so even with The Way of Water pushing things even further on a visual front, it couldn’t really hope to recapture the same giant leap forward that the 2009 original had in that department.
I think, to put it simply, your feelings towards The Way of Water may be reflected of your feelings for the first Avatar. If you liked Avatar, you’ll probably like The Way of Water. If you didn’t like Avatar, then The Way of Water probably isn’t going to win you over. I personally felt that this sequel may have been a marginal improvement over the first movie simply because it spends more time with the creatures of the world of Pandora. But it still succumbs to its predecessor’s weakness of simply ‘making due’ with its plot and characters and hoping the visual sheen will be enough to hide this weakness.
For those who may not remember, the basic premise of Avatar is that, in the future, Earth is a dying planet, and so humanity takes to other worlds for their resources. Most notable among those worlds is Pandora, a lush moon of brightly colored flora and dangerous yet beautiful fauna. Every creature of Pandora is connected through a global neural network (don’t call it a god), which Pandora’s native sentient species, the Na’vi, worship as a goddess they dub ‘Eywa.’ The Na’vi are tall humanoids (about 10 feet in height) who have striped blue skin, lanky limbs, feline facial features and monkey-like tails. The Na’vi can communicate with the other creatures of Pandora through linking a band of tendrils hidden in their hair (gross) to share thoughts and memories, as well as speaking their own language and able to learn those of humans.
Humans, as mentioned, frequent Pandora for its resources (in the first film, they were after a material hilariously dubbed ‘unobtainium’). When humans aren’t just mindlessly ravaging the forest, they try a more civil approach to dealing with the Na’vi in the forms of Avatars. Avatars are artificial Na’vi bodies that humans link their minds to, so that they may communicate and socialize with the native Na’vi. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) was a human soldier in the first film, whose human body died (spoiler alert for the thirteen-year old highest-grossing movie ever), but who lives on through his Na’vi Avatar. He even married a Na’vi princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and became the leader of the Omaticaya tribe.
Now that we’re all caught up, The Way of Water takes place umpteen years after the first film. Jake and Neytiri now have four kids: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), their oldest, headstrong son. Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), their younger son who tends to act before he thinks. Tuktirey (“Tuk”), their eight-year old daughter. And Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Jake and Neytiri’s adopted teenage daughter, born from the inert Avatar of Grace Augustine (also Sigourney Weaver) under unknown circumstances in what seems to be a mystery to be resolved in a future installment. Kiri also seems to possess powers unique from the other Na’vi, making her perhaps the most memorable new character, though the fact that they’ve aged down Weaver’s CG face while retaining her normal voice makes for an awkward mix. There’s also a human boy whom they call Spider (Jack Champion) who lives both among the human scientists left on Pandora and among the Na’vi, and who also happens to be the retconned into existence son of the first film’s villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).
Speaking of Quaritch, even he manages to make a return despite dying in the first film (don’t worry, the film is a bit more elaborate than just saying “Somehow, Miles Quaritch returned”). It turns out the Resources Development Administration (RDA) has initiated the “Recombinants Program,” creating Avatar bodies implanted with the memories of fallen soldiers, with Quaritch’s recombinant leading a new group of soldiers, as the RDA plans to terraform Pandora into a new Earth. So it’s the whole “a clone embedded with someone’s memories to bring back a dead character” sci-fi trope, though at least here they acknowledge that this Quaritch is actually a separate person than the original instead of pretending otherwise (sorry sci-fi, just because a clone has someone’s memories doesn’t make them the same person. They didn’t live that person’s life. But now I’m getting sidetracked and philosophical).
So the RDA builds a new base on Pandora, with Quaritch and his goons sent on a mission to kill Jake Sulley, as he united the Na’vi tribes in rebellion in the first film. With Quaritch’s pursuit of Jake proving relentless (Quaritch even kidnaps his own kind-of son Spider in order to get more information of Sulley), Jake passes down his role as Omiticaya leader so he and his family can go into hiding. The Sulley’s find refuge with the Metkayina tribe; aquatic Na’vi with green skin and fish tails. Though welcomed by some Metkayina, the tribe also has some less friendly members, who distrust the Sulleys – particularly the Sulley children – for not being water Na’vi, and more specifically for being “half-Avatar.” So yes, this Avatar sequel has something of a “kids in a new school” story going on, if you can believe it.
The Metkayina are also strong allies (“spirit siblings”) with the other sentient species of Pandora, the Tulkun; large whale-like creatures which a marine biologist character informs us are “smarter than humans. More emotional, more spiritual.” And now I’m just curious as to what metric one uses to measure the spirituality of whales.
Anyway, the Tulkuns are important to the plot, because they possess a brain enzyme that can be used to stop human aging, which has made it the most valuable substance known to man (unobtainium be damned!). Naturally, this means that whaling (tulkuning?) is another threat that Pandora faces. And soon, the Sulleys find themselves caught in the conflict between the Metkayina and Tulkuns against the RDA.
It’s frankly a whole lot of details for what amounts to a very simple plot. And that’s reflected in the runtime of the film, which runs at a staggering three hours and fifteen minutes, but feels like it could tell the same story in half that time. I suppose, on the plus side, much of that bloat comes from the moments in which The Way of Water takes a break from the plot, and just lets us enjoy the scenery and the creatures therein. I almost feel like the best possible Avatar movie would be one that foregoes the plot, and just lets the audience bask in Pandora. But persists the plot does, and while I’m all for its pro-environmental message (especially its love of animals), I do think we live in a time in which people care more about what a story is saying than they do how well it says it. And I think many films have said the same things as Avatar, and said them far more eloquently.
I think my main criticism with the Avatar films is how dark and dreary their depictions of humanity are. Yes, it’s true, mankind has screwed up the environment, but humans are also capable of fighting to protect it. And while Avatar may showcase the occasional scientist who’s capable of compassion, on the whole the films have a big “Trees good. Humans bad” thing going on. The Avatar series just seems so defeatist when it comes to humanity, that it often comes across as a pessimistic series masquerading as a hopeful one. Hell, whenever the Na’vi kill human construction workers (who are hardly to blame for the overall plight) it’s treated as something to cheer. But if anything happens to a single tree, the film relishes in showing us the anguish of the Na’vi to emphasize the tragic loss (if I had a dollar for every time we see a Na’vi shriek in anguish, I’d be as rich as James Cameron). Again, I’m all for the environment and what the film is trying to say, but it does seem strange how the Avatar series seems to respect all life except for that of humans.
Compare this to Princess Mononoke: the “villain” of that film, Lady Eboshi, was destroying a forest, but did so because she firmly believed that its resources and ridding it of its animal gods would help her people prosper. She rescued women from prostitution and housed lepers. She had remorse for her actions, but was doing what she felt she had to do for her people. By contrast, Quaritch and the other human villains of Avatar seem to just get a kick out of blowing up trees. There’s no depth to their reasons or dimension in their actions. And while the past few years in real life may have made cartoonishly simple villains in positions of power a real thing, it still comes across as lazy writing in a movie.
I guess the upside to this is it makes Quaritch (unintentionally) the most entertaining character in the Avatar movies. His utter disregard towards the environment and the lives of anything that isn’t human makes him so outrageous, I can’t help but get a kick out of him. Still, introducing a more nuanced villain or two would definitely help add something to these Avatar movies.
As was the case with the first Avatar, The Way of Water is a very simple film that treats itself as something deeper, and hopes that its visual effects will cover up its narrative shortcomings. On the bright side, said visuals are as dazzling as ever, perhaps even more so when one considers that the film’s focus on water meant that James Cameron and company developed new technology to create underwater motion-capture.
That is where Avatar’s strength has always lied, the technology. Although we are more accustomed to CG spectacles now than ever, Avatar: The Way of Water’s visual effects still manage to stand out. The world of Pandora is an eye-popping one, to be sure. And that world is the real star of the movie. I reiterate that I wouldn’t mind seeing a plotless Avatar movie that just allows the audience to savor its environment and creatures. After all, it does seem a little counterproductive that in a movie this environmentally conscious, it ends with an explosion and gunfire-fueled finale to send the audience home happy. To say nothing of the irony of a movie about conservation being so gluttonously excessive (along with the lengthy runtime, we still have three more Avatar movies if all goes to plan).
I will emphasize again that, after viewing the first Avatar again during its most recent re-release, I do think that The Way of Water is something of an improvement. I think the environments and creatures are more captivating, and the aforementioned explosive finale is more fun. But your overall opinion of The Way of Water may depend on how you view it. As a visual spectacle, it’s a real delight. As a movie, it’s okay.
Say what you want about Disney’s overall slate of live-action remakes and an over-reliance on Marvel and Star Wars in recent years, but the Walt Disney Company’s animated output has never been better than in has over the last thirteen years. Starting with the Princess and the Frog in 2009, Walt Disney Animation Studios seemed to find their groove again, often rivaling and occasionally surpassing sister animation studio Pixar. The past decade-plus has seen Disney Animation release worldwide phenomenons like Frozen and Encanto, and additional acclaimed hits like Moana, Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ output has never been more consistent and varied. The animation giant’s sixty-first feature film, Strange World, adds another notch in Disney’s recent versatility in storytelling by hearkening back to pulp fiction adventures of the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, while Strange World continues Disney Animation’s recent winning ways in terms of versatility, it doesn’t match up to the same consistent quality as its recent predecessors. It doesn’t fall so short as to make me think the studio’s hot streak is broken, but Strange World does leave me wondering if said hot streak is winding down.
Strange World takes place in the land of Avalonia, a kind of Jules Verne world of flying machines, adventurers and retro futurism. Avalonia is surrounded by mountain ranges so large that even their most advanced airships can’t get past them. One notable Avalonian adventurer is Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), who is so tough he shaves with a piranha. Jaeger is joined on his adventures by his much less brave son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jaeger has conquered seemingly everything Avalonia has to offer, with the sole exception being the discovery of what lies beyond the mountains of Avalonia, which is to be his life’s accomplishment. During the Clades’ expedition of the mountains, Searcher discovers a new type of plant that gives off energy. With the mountains proving too treacherous to conquer, Searcher and the rest of the crew suggest that the new plant (which they dub ‘Pando’) is world-changing enough of a discovery, and decide to return to Avalonia. Jaeger, hellbent on accomplishing his goal, abandons his son and continues onward through the mountains.
Fast-forward twenty-five years, and Pando has indeed changed Avalonia by becoming the land’s power source. Searcher is seen as Avalonia’s new hero for his discovery (he has a statue right next to his father’s), and he has since become a farmer of Pando along with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Jaeger, meanwhile, is long-since presumed dead.
All is not well in Avalonia, however, as Pando crops are dying at an alarming rate. The leader of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) – who was with Jaeger and Searcher on their mountain expedition all those years ago – shows up at Searcher’s house to recruit him on a new expedition. Massive roots of Pando have been discovered in a sinkhole to the north, and Callisto believes these roots lead to the source of Pando’s power (the “Heart of Pando”), and that finding the source may help them solve the issue of Pando’s rapid decay. Searcher is reluctant, but having more knowledge of Pando than anyone else, agrees to embark on the adventure. Unbeknownst to him, Ethan stows away on Callisto’s ship (he’s always dreamed of going on adventures like his grandfather), with Meridian following in pursuit of her son
Unfortunately for the crew, the sinkhole not only leads underground, but into an entrance way to a whole other world beneath their own (the titular Strange World) and their ship crashes. This Strange World is a land filled with dangerous creatures and terrain, so Ethan and the rest of the crew will have to survive this Strange World if they hope to save Pando and return to Avalonia. But they’ll have some additional help in the form of Jaeger, who had fallen into the Strange World long ago, and has survived by building a flamethrower and feasting on the smaller creatures of Strange World (I don’t consider Jaeger’s survival a spoiler. It was shown in the trailers, and even if it wasn’t, these kinds of films always have this kind of character to guide our heroes on their adventure).
Again, the film has a very strong throwback vibe, hearkening back to the days of pulp magazines and movie serials, and unabashedly flaunts the expected tropes of such genres. On one hand, such sincerity in genre filmmaking is hard to come by these days, and has a certain innocent appeal to it. But it also means that Strange World doesn’t have a whole lot of surprises in store. Still, even a cliched story can be made special by its execution, and I’d rather have a good predictable movie than a bad movie that features twists just for the heck of it. Though I must admit it’s in that execution that Strange World becomes a bit of a mixed bag.
I think my main issue is that the action of Strange World is serviceable, but unmemorable. Considering the film is aiming for that ‘BANG ZOOM’ action of yesteryear, the action scenes should be one of the film’s highlights. Instead, Strange World simply seems to make due with its action scenes. Disney Animation hasn’t had the strongest history with action films, but they did do it right recently with Raya and the Last Dragon, so it’s a shame that didn’t translate here when it would have been even more beneficial. Strange World could have brought the action of movie serials up to date and, with the benefit of animation, gotten really imaginative with it. Unfortunately, the action scenes here are decently entertaining but overly familiar.
Where the film shines, however, is in its animation. The titular Strange World is a sight to behold, with its sharp reds, magentas and oranges making everything pop. Better still are the creatures that inhabit it, many of which are faceless blobs of varying shapes and sizes (one of which, dubbed Splat, is rightfully the film’s mascot). Others are stone-like brontosauruses that shed pollen from their backs and have legs as thin as pipe cleaners with feet like giant mushroom caps. I’m always a sucker for creature designs, and I get the impression the Disney animators had a lot of fun coming up with the creatures of Strange World. Even the world of Avalonia, the supposed ‘normal’ world of the film, is a joy to look at with its combination of history and fantasy.
The film also deserves credit for injecting a bit of heart into an otherwise by-the-books action-adventure, tying in a generational trauma theme seemingly carried over by Encanto, with the three generations of Clades (Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan) often butting heads with their worldviews. It doesn’t tug at the heart in the same way as other recent Disney animated flicks, but an action-adventure doesn’t really need to. Of course, with the action failing to lift Strange World up to greater heights, perhaps a little more effort trying to reach the same emotional heights of a Frozen or an Encanto may have been the key to making Strange World something special.
Strange World is a solid entry in the Disney Animation Studios canon. But in a time when Disney’s animated storytelling has never been stronger, simply being ‘solid’ does mean that Strange World is in the shadows of the studio’s other recent films. It isn’t that Strange World is bad, just that – much like the characters in the film – it often feels lost and stumbling amidst a land of giants.
Yes, Spirited Away may have officially turned twenty last year (and I even wrote about that), but today marks the twentieth anniversary of when the film was released in the United States. And much like the SNES is my favorite console so I wrote a thirtieth anniversary post for both its Japanese and US anniversaries, Spirited Away is my favorite film, so I’m writing a second twentieth anniversary post in honor of its US release.
Now with all that unnecessary explanation out of the way…
It was twenty years ago today – September 20th 2002 – that Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, Spirited Away, was first released in US cinemas. A watershed moment in the history of animation and cinema, Spirited Away set a new benchmark for animation the world over. I honestly don’t think there’s been an animated film released since whose influence has been as far reaching.
Hayao Miyazaki’s name was still obscure in the US of A at the time Spirited Away was released stateside, with only three of his films having had official releases in the western world beforehand (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, if you were wondering). Though all three films received immense acclaim in America, they were still a bit under the radar, with both Totoro and Kiki being released straight to VHS, and Mononoke having such a quiet theatrical release, that calling it a ‘limited release’ would be an understatement.
Thankfully, Spirited Away had top names from Disney and Pixar backing it, which resulted in the film breaking barriers like never before, even winning an Academy Award in the process.
More important than any awards though, is the impact and influence Spirited Away continues to have in animation and cinema. Everything from live-action films, anime, Disney, the films of Tomm Moore, even television shows like Gravity Falls have been influenced by it, and everything in between. It’s also no coincidence that Pixar’s films started becoming more artistically rich following Spirited Away’s release (there’s an argument to be made that Inside Out was basically an elaborate homage to Spirited Away. No wonder it’s the best Pixar movie).
Most important is how Spirited Away continues to touch the hearts and capture the imaginations of audiences the world over. Myself very much included.
When the first Thor film was released in 2011, I don’t think many people would have guessed that it would be the first series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (outside of the Avengers movies) to reach a fourth entry. The 2011 film was decently fun, but was hardly as beloved as Iron Man. Meanwhile, the 2013 sequel Thor: The Dark World is widely considered one of the weakest MCU movies. But in 2017 the series headed in a new direction with its third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, with the Taika Waititi-directed film reinvigorating the series with a greater emphasis on humor and spectacle. With a newfound popularity for Thor, Marvel brought Waititi back for this fourth installment, Thor: Love and Thunder.
The good news is that if you loved Ragnarok, Love and Thunder provides a similarly good time, even if it may not be the breath of fresh air that Ragnarok was when it was released.
After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been travelling the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy, helping them save various civilizations from evil threats (with Thor causing a bit of collateral damage along the way). However, a distress signal from an old friend has Thor travelling back to New Asgard, located on Earth after the events of Ragnarok.
A being known as Gorr (Christian Bale) has come into possession of an ancient weapon called the Necrosword, which grants him the ability to slay gods (at the expense of infecting Gorr mind, body and soul). Now known as Gorr the God Butcher, he has been slaying god after god across the universe, with the Asgardians being his next targets.
After Thor and company dispatch of Gorr’s monsters, they realize that the God Butcher has kidnapped the children of New Asgard. So Thor, alongside the new king of Asgard, Valkrie (Tessa Thompson) and his rock friend Korg (Taiki Waititi himself), sets off to find Gorr and rescue the children. But Thor has a new superpowered ally in his old girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who was last seen in The Dark World. Unbeknownst to Thor, Jane is dying of cancer, and with her treatments failing to improve her condition, she desperately turned to the Asgardian magic found in New Asgard for help. As fate would have it, Thor inadvertently placed a spell on his old hammer Mjolnir back when he and Jane were dating, a spell that dictates the hammer would always protect Jane. So in the present, the hammer’s shattered pieces reform, and deem Jane Foster worthy to wield the mighty Mjolnir, thus giving her the power of Thor. Though she gains the strength and ability equal to that of the god of thunder, the effects are only present when she wields the hammer. Without it, Jane’s health continues to decline.
That’s some pretty heavy stuff coming from the sequel to Thor: Ragnarok, and I’ve heard some people fault Love and Thunder for a perceived inconsistent tone. But I actually appreciate that Love and Thunder attempts to tackle some heavier material, instead of simply betting everything on the comedy that made Ragnarok work and have it overstay its welcome. The more serious elements are what set this film apart from its predecessor. It was admittedly a risky move to use something like cancer as a plot element in a Marvel movie, but the film ultimately handles the subject delicately.
Speaking of the film’s serious elements, Gorr the God Butcher provides Thor: Love and Thunder with one of the MCU’s most complex villains. After wandering the broken remains of his world with his daughter, praying to his god for help and safety, his daughter succumbs to the elements, and he’s left wandering alone. Feeling his prayers fell on deaf ears, Gorr is summoned by the Necrosword to meet his god, who callously ignores Gorr’s plight. Gorr then uses the sword to kill his god, but with the Necrosword’s influence, it begins to warp his mind and ambitions, as he now seeks to kill all gods.
In a way, Gorr kind of reminds me of Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2 in how the combination of personal tragedy and an object infecting his mind leads him down a path of villainy. Although I don’t think any on-screen Marvel villain has equaled Doc Ock, Gorr the God Butcher is probably in the top three villains of the MCU. He’s even a visually cool villain with the way he travels in and out of shadows, lurking towards the screen like some kind of Dark Souls boss. The MCU has often been criticized for a lack of compelling villains, but between Gorr the God Butcher and Wenwu from last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it seems Marvel’s villain scenario is seeing some major improvements.
Before I start making Thor: Love and Thunder sound like it’s all serious subjects and dark and dreary villains, I do have to reiterate that the film retains the sense of humor and fun that audiences loved about Thor: Ragnarok. Granted, there are those who didn’t appreciate Ragnarok’s sense of humor and felt that it turned Thor into Guardians of the Galaxy. But I think the more serious aspects mixed into Love and Thunder may win over some of Ragnarok’s critics, while still providing plenty for returning fans of Ragnarok (special mention has to go to Russel Crowe as the Greek god Zeus, who might just steal the whole show). It’s one of the most fun MCU movies in quite some time.
Something else I can very much appreciate with Thor: Love and Thunder is that it (again, like Shang-Chi) is one of the increasingly rare MCU films that stands as its own movie, unburdened by excessive crossovers of other Marvel characters or having the overarching MCU story shoehorned into the proceedings. Even the mid and after-credits sequences still relate to Thor’s story, rather than tease someone else’s. Considering the recent Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sacrificed the setup the first Dr. Strange left open for the sequel in favor of catering to the bigger MCU plot, Love and Thunder’s insistence on just being a Thor movie is all the more commendable.
I do have to admit that even with all my praises, Thor: Love and Thunder doesn’t exactly bring new creative heights to the MCU. The more serious plot elements and its standout villain set Love and Thunder apart from its predecessor, but it still does follow much of the same MCU formula. It’s certainly a more solid MCU entry than we’ve been seeing as of late, but I don’t think it necessarily breathes new life into the mega-franchise either (something which you could argue Ragnarok did). But I think most audiences will be having too much fun to care about that (though they may be bummed that the Guardians of the Galaxy have a minimal role, despite the film’s marketing).
Thor: Love and Thunder is an undeniable good time that should leave any Marvel fan with a smile on their face. And for once, it may just tug at their heart a little bit too.
Minions: The Rise of Gru is the fifth overall installment in Illumination’s Despicable Me franchise, and the second that shifts the focus away from Gru in favor of the ubiquitous Minions. Though, as the subtitle suggests, Gru has much more of a role here than he did in the first Minions movie (in which he appeared as a background Easter egg in one scene, and then had a speaking cameo at the end, which made the aforementioned background Easter egg kind of superfluous). Because of Gru’s more prominent role, you could argue that this seconds Minions movie is more of a Despicable Me prequel than it is a Minions spinoff. But that may be for the best, considering how the first Minions movie didn’t seem to know how to have its titular, Twinkie-shaped creatures carry the story on their own (its villain seemed to get more screentime than the Minions themselves). In that sense, Minions: The Rise of Gru is an improvement over its predecessor, but whether or not you enjoy it may depend on how well you can tolerate the Minions themselves.
Children (and Facebook moms) can’t seem to get enough of the Minions, while many other audiences find the antics and gibberish ramblings of the Minions irksome. I’m a bit indifferent to them, myself. I can understand why many find the Minions annoying, but I also know I’m not the target audience for the characters and find their antics harmless. Their worst crime is resurrecting the trend of animated sidekick characters purposefully upstaging the main characters. In short, I may not be a fan of the Minions, but I don’t hate them, either. If you’re someone who does enjoy the Minions, then you’ll probably get a kick out of Minions: The Rise of Gru, but if you aren’t a fan, then this movie certainly isn’t going to convert you.
The story here takes place in the 1970s. Gru (Steve Carell) is still just a kid with aspirations to become a great supervillain. Now that he has the Minions as his, well, minions, he’s a step closer to his goals. The Minions help Gru commit petty, bullyish crimes, like cutting in line at an ice cream shop, stealing some ice cream, and then eating said ice cream in front of a gym to taunt the people inside trying to burn calories. If the movie has one notable strength, it’s that this is the first time since the first Despicable Me that we’ve seen Gru actually be a villain. And isn’t that why people liked this series in the first place?
Anyway, the plot sees Gru invited to join his favorite supervillain team, the Vicious Six, after their former leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), is presumed dead (in reality, he was given the boot for being too old). The Vicious Six have recently stolen an ancient treasure, the Zodiac Stone (which is actually a medallion). When Gru is denied entry into the Vicious Six for being too young, he steals the Zodiac Stone from the villain group. The Vicious Six, lead by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), then swear revenge against Gru. But before they can track Gru down, the aspiring villain is kidnapped by Wild Knuckles, who also wants the stone.
Unbeknownst to Wild Knuckles or the Vicious Six, one of Gru’s Minions, Otto (voiced by Pierre Coffin, as all the Minions are) has traded the stone for a Pet Rock with a neighborhood kid. Once Gru is kidnapped, three of his Minions, Kevin, Bob and Stuart set out to rescue their leader, while Otto goes to retrieve the Zodiac Stone. Meanwhile, Wild Knuckles starts to take a liking to Gru, who becomes the apprentice of the one-time Vicious Six leader.
To be honest, there’s not much more of a plot than that. A recurring issue with Illumination’s movies is that they feel less like animated films and more like episodes of a television cartoon stretched into a feature length. It’s no unforgiveable sin, and not every animated film has to be an emotional masterpiece, but after a while you start to wish that Illumination would at least aim for something more. Sadly, Minions: The Rise of Gru is another example of Illumination settling.
On the reverse side, if there’s one thing Illumination deserves credit for, it’s the quality of the animation itself. Illumination is known for making their films on a relatively smaller budget than other mainstream animation studios, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Illumination’s films are always colorful and pop with a visual liveliness, and that’s very much the case here with this Minions sequel.
Minions: The Rise of Gru has something to offer fans of the series: there’s some genuinely funny moments, the animation is as eye-popping as ever, and it’s fun to see Gru go back to his cartoonishly villainous roots. There’s also a fun sub-plot where Kevin, Stuart and Bob study kung-fu from an acupuncturist named Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh). But again, this is a movie that isn’t going to win over those who aren’t already initiated into the material. The Minions are still very much the Minions, and the movie follows Illumination’s trend of being just entertaining enough to be adequate. It may provide some fun when watching it, but it leaves no lasting impression.
To many audiences, Minions: The Rise of Gru may be as bland as a potato. But for the young tykes who can’t get enough of the Minions, they may just go bananas.
With all due respect to Woody, I think it’s safe to say that Buzz Lightyear is the fan favorite Toy Story character. With his myriad of gadgets, lasers, the ability to fly (or fall with style), and combat skills with which he saves the galaxy, it’s absolutely no mystery why Buzz usurped Woody as Andy’s favorite toy. It really was only a matter of time before Buzz Lightyear got his own movie. After twenty-seven years since Toy Story first hit theaters, Pixar has finally given Buzz such a movie in the form of Lightyear, a sci-fi adventure that serves as the in-universe movie that inspired the toy.
It’s a very fun and creative idea for Pixar to make the Buzz Lightyear movie that made Andy from Toy Story such a fan in the first place. Although it has to be mentioned that the idea technically already happened with the Disney animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command in the early 2000s. But now the origin story can be told by Pixar themselves. And as the Disney+ series Monsters at Work proved, Pixar’s creations are best left in Pixar’s hands. Being Pixar’s own take on the in-universe Buzz Lightyear concept, Lightyear is the definitive origin story for the iconic Space Ranger.
Definitive though it may be, Lightyear – while ultimately a solid and entertaining science fiction film – may not be the kind of science fiction adventure you would expect from its namesake character.
The story begins with Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and the Space Rangers of Star Command – lead by Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) – investigating an alien planet. They find that the planet provides the air and resources to make it habitable, but its monstrous creatures and plant life prove too dangerous, and Star Command issues an emergency retreat from the planet. Buzz takes control of Star Command’s ship, but a miscalculation during the escape leads to the Space Rangers being marooned on the planet.
Star Command makes the best of the situation and builds a colony on the planet over the next year. Buzz – taking responsibility for the current situation – volunteers to be the test pilot to see if he can make hyperspace, as Star Command’s primary ship won’t be able to leave the planet without it. Buzz doesn’t quite reach hyperspace, but finds that when he returns from his four minute flight that four years have passed on the planet’s surface.
Though Hawthorne objects to Buzz making any more flights, the Space Ranger is too determined to call it quits. With his robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) testing new formulas for fuel (using the method of “Crystallic Fusion” mentioned in Toy Story), Buzz continues flight after flight after flight, with roughly four years passing by with each unsuccessful test.
While Buzz has barely aged a day, his test flights have added up to him being gone a total of sixty-two years. During that time, Commander Hawthorne has passed away. Feeling he let his best friend down, Buzz is now more determined than ever, and with Sox perfecting his formula for hyperspace fuel over the past sixty-two years, Buzz finally makes a successful jump to hyperspeed. But in doing so, an additional twenty-two years have passed. In that time, the Star Command colony has been occupied by the robotic forces of a being known as “Zurg.”
Thankfully, a small band of ragtag, would-be Space Rangers have slipped away from Zurg’s occupation. This includes Hawthorne’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), who hopes to live up to her grandmother’s legacy; Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), a good-hearted but clumsy oaf; and Darby Steel (Dale Soules), an elderly convict trying to work off her sentence. Though this team may not seem cut out to be Space Rangers, Buzz will have to rely on them – as well as Sox – if they are to bring down Zurg’s robots and deliver the hyperspace fuel to Star Command.
I don’t want to say too much else as to avoid any major spoilers. But I have to admit that the setup to the plot as described above actually takes up a fair bit of the film’s runtime. And I imagine that may not exactly be to everyone’s liking. The whole ordeal of Buzz’s test flights provides some interesting storytelling, and is reminiscent of the recent Top Gun Maverick, with a little bit of Intersteller worked in there for good measure. It’s entertaining in its own way, but it’s probably a far cry from what you would expect from the Buzz Lightyear movie that supposedly inspired an eight-year-old’s obsession with the character.
That may be the biggest issue with Lightyear, although it’s ultimately a good movie, it seems to be the wrong kind of science-fiction story. Some might say that’s my own expectations getting in the way. But given all the information the Toy Story movies gave us on the Buzz Lightyear character and his world, I’d say Toy Story itself had those expectations. Given all the dialogue and bits of insight the Toy Story series gave us on Buzz Lightyear’s in-universe character, I think most people would probably expect a fantasy-adventure set in space, akin to Star Wars. So the more grounded science-fiction approach of Lightyear comes off as a bit jarring, even disappointing.
Yes, I understand that this movie and its characters are supposed to be separate from their Toy Story equivalents, but as is the case with many adaptations, you still expect a level of faithfulness to the source material. And bizarrely, Pixar’s own adaptation of a character they created feels strangely unfaithful to the world we’ve been teased with for nearly thirty years.
Buzz Lightyear the toy thought himself to be the actual character he was based on, and believed his undying heroism could do no wrong. So it’s kind of weird to see the “actual character” of Buzz Lightyear be depicted as he is here; making continuous shortsighted mistakes, rarely trusting others, being haunted by the past… It’s a more human Buzz Lightyear, but he seems far removed from the person that the toy Buzz Lightyear believed himself to be.
Without spoiling too much, there’s also a twist involving the villainous Zurg that I really think will prove divisive to longtime Toy Story fans. Sure, it’s a twist that makes thematic sense with the movie at hand, but it all goes back to the movie’s deviation of what Toy Story told us about these characters. It feels like a twist that belongs in a different movie, because the story itself often feels like it belongs in a separate movie. Though I didn’t predict the twist itself, I did predict that there was going to be a twist with Zurg quite a while ago, because there’s always a twist with villains these days. While I usually prefer deeper, more complex villains, I can’t help but feel Evil Emperor Zurg could have just been Evil Emperor Zurg and nobody would have had a problem with it. But evil emperors can’t just be evil emperors anymore, it seems.
That kind of sums up the issues Lightyear runs into. It wants to be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story, but simultaneously feels like it has its own sci-fi story it wants to tell that doesn’t really feel like it should be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story. Pixar is renowned for the maturity they impart in their animated features, but I feel like Lightyear should have been the one time Pixar went into full Saturday Morning Cartoon mode (albeit with the trademark Pixar heart at its core). Lightyear oddly feels like a more serious, grownup sci-fi movie that just happens to star Buzz Lightyear.
If you can get passed the misplaced tone of the film, Lightyear does have a lot to offer. As you would expect from Pixar, the animation quality is top-notch. While I would argue the film needed some more lively color, it still is interesting to see Pixar tackle a more conventional sci-fi aesthetic. The bulky armors, hefty machinery and insectoid aliens all evoke a loving tribute to classic science fiction, all brought to life with the studio’s impeccable attention to detail.
The film is also excellently cast. While Tim Allen is perfect for the often-delusional Buzz Lightyear toy, Chris Evans seems to be the perfect fit for the heroic “real” Buzz Lightyear. Evans somehow manages to capture the same bravado of Tim Allen’s Buzz, but in a younger, more serious way. The supporting characters are also well cast, with particular praise going to Pixar animator Peter Sohn as Sox, who gives the robotic cat a similar “innocent robot” appeal to Baymax from Big Hero 6 or Ron from Ron’s Gone Wrong.
Another fun highlight of Lightyear is the film’s references to Toy Story, with Buzz quoting his toy-self on a number of occasions, and other little callbacks sprinkled throughout. The film is never overburdened with the references, but it’s an appreciated way to keep the DNA of the Toy Story series intact.
Lightyear is ultimately an entertaining and thoughtful science fiction movie, but I don’t think it ranks among Pixar’s best largely because it seems to be emulating the wrong kinds of science-fiction stories, given the legacy of its titular character. It may not be the Buzz Lightyear movie we expected, but Lightyear proves to be another solid entry in the Pixar canon, even if it doesn’t soar to infinity and beyond.