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It’s not just the shell, it’s what’s inside that counts

I didn’t think they would screw it up that bad, but they did.

Now let’s pause a bit and say, before we start caterwauling about this version versus that version, that there may be some real cultural differences that would cause thematic or idea loss in transfer to another culture. Having paid lip service to that, I will go on to say some of the biggest themes in the original was lost not by cultural differences but by misunderstanding or just plain ignoring them.

Yes, there are spoilers here. Many spoilers.

The live-action 2017 Ghost in the Shell was already steeped in controversy even before the film was released in the casting for the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi. A Japanese or at least Asian actress should have played the part, the criticism goes, not a white actress in the Hollywood mold no matter how much box office she’d pull in. Still, if you have to hire a white woman, you could do a lot worse by not casting Scarlett Johanssen, given her performances in Lucy, Her and Under the Skin. Plus, that voice – there’s no mistaking her for anyone else.

Mamoru Oshii, the director of 95 Ghost, has said it the Major is a cyborg with an artificial body so it doesn’t matter what she looks like on the outside (or who plays her). If that’s the case, why is she even female? And why so voluptuous, especially for an androgynous being? It could just turn out that if you’re going to put a human brain into shell, it might be better psychologically to match gender characteristics to the sex of the donor. Some people might not be able to relate to a robot or android or cyborg who doesn’t look human, but then there’s the problem of the “uncanny valley” wherein an android or robot or cyborg looks mostly human but not quite, thus eliciting feelings of revulsion among other humans [cf. Polar Express]. (Honest Trailers went ahead and censored the Major’s fake nipples in the 95 Ghost video apparently because they looked too real and elicited not revulsion but other physiological reactions, at least for the men. For women, I dunno. I wonder if anyone has even asked them.)

But that’s not the first question that should’ve been asked, and that question is “Why do you need to do a live-action movie in the first place?” Hollywood is going full speed ahead on this and damn the torpedoes. Disney’s got Beauty and the Beast this year, Jungle Book last year, Lion King in the future, and many, many more in the farther future. Wasn’t the original good enough? Is there some shortcoming in the original animation that disappoints and leaves viewers unfulfilled? (In the case of Jungle Book, yes; the other two, no.) Plans are afoot to do this live-action baloney to another Japanese anime, Akira (and if there are gods in this universe, please don’t let that happen). Just because you have the technical capability to redo your animated films into “reality” doesn’t mean you should. Go find or write a new, original story and dazzle us with that.

Alas, Hollywood finds it easier to remake something than start from scratch for the big movies. It speaks to the financing and risks associated with making big films, but also people who grew up with watching the original films saying “I can do better.” Turns out, that’s not always the case.

The 1995 Ghost in the Shell was a thrilling ride into future, with human-machine interfaces and technical  gizmos and the electronic cityscape. The Major is a combination of human brain in a cyborg shell, and she begins wondering about her past and her future. In the meantime, she and her colleagues in Section 9 are trying to find out who’s hacking personal memories and making supposedly free-will humans do their bidding. Along the way, the film gets philosophical on what it means to be human in the face of encroaching technology.

In Japanese anime (and the manga sources for many of the films), time is set aside for philosophical introspection, often in slow, meditative scenes without dialog. We’re given time to breathe and ponder before the next action sequence. Not so in in an American film. Introspection is outward, not inward, usually explored with another character even if that character is never seen again.

We get little introspection in 17 Ghost as opposed to 95 Ghost. Gone from 95 is the scene where, as the Section 9 crew loads weapons and prepares to face the enemy, Togusa asks why he, as a mostly human mundane police detective, was recruited by Section 9. Because they need the outlook from a different perspective, he’s told. Gone is the scene when the Major is riding a slow ferry along a canal, taking in the cityscape as music plays in the background.  She spots a woman who looks amazingly like her in an office building. It’s just the Major’s expression telling us she has many, many questions about herself, but not a word is spoken. In 96 Ghost, the Major never really finds out about her past, or if she even has one. In that film, the past isn’t as important as the future.

In one of the main scenes of 95 Ghost, the Major goes diving in the river. Batou, one of her Section 9 colleagues, asks her why she does it if it frightens her and she says fear is one reason why; not many things can scare a cyborg. They get philosophical, and at one point he Major speaks in an odd voice. The scene is in 17 Ghost, but bereft of philosophy from the secondary voice. The conversation is just surface, no introspection.

The 2017 Ghost also is afflicted with a Hollywood disease of Everything Has To Be Explained. Example: I was perfectly satisfied with the knowledge that a small band of rebels managed to steal the plans for the Death Star; I didn’t need to know who they were or how they did it. But now we have an entire movie explaining it. I was OK with knowing Han Solo was a smuggler and a rogue, but now we’re going to have an entire movie to explain how he got there. (More profits for Disney being another motive, of course).

17 Ghost is all about the Major’s backstory, something 95 Ghost only hinted at. She finds out she’d been lied to about her origins. She’s egged on by a mysterious hacker who’s also killing the scientists involved, as it turns out, in the creation of the cyborgs. This leads to the big, bad corporation that made her first by murdering her and stealing her brain. She’s the 99th effort to meld mind and machine, the other 98 being failures, some of them her friends who were killed in the same raid she was. So the CEO becomes the real bad guy — big cliché No. 1– and she has to turn rogue in her search for Truth – big cliché No. 2. (On a motorcycle – big cliché No. 3.) We also find out how Batou, a colleague from Section 9, lost his eyes and had them replaced with super-tech lenses. I was satisfied not knowing in 95 Ghost; indeed, I thought he’d had the procedure done voluntarily.

One thing we – meaning Hollywood – should have learned by now is that translating anime into live action has some real problems. So it is here: The Major’s body looks heavy and awkward, as opposed to lithe and limber in 95 Ghost. (Both versions make the same mistake, though. When the Major lands on a roof, it partially collapses under her because of her weight. But why? By the time the movies are set, newer materials should be available, materials that are strong yet light and flexible. Remember, when the Major starts one of her super-human runs, she’s got to accelerate all of that mass. Yet neither movie shows that as a problem.)

The neon-lit megacity with tall skyscrapers, huge blocks of residential towers, small open-air food vendors and giant advertising holograms has now become its own cliché. Blade Runner started it in 1985, though Japanese manga had been moving in that direction. But more movies have been slavishly copying it. Blade Runner was a breakthrough in showing the gritty, multicultural, techno-city of the near future, but the time has come for someone to break that mold and show us something different.

References to The Matrix and Blade Runner are obvious for the 2017 version. One influence not mentioned, though, is Dark City (1998), especially the scene where the doctor is about to wipe out the Major’s memories with some kind of a hypodermic needle. However, the doctor changes her mind and instead gives the Major something to fight back with. Sound familiar?

17 Ghost tosses the biggest main theme of 95 Ghost, that of the future of human and machines, the future that Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have been warning us about. The villain in 95 Ghost isn’t really a villain; he’s an artificial intelligence created in the lab. He escapes because he wants to answer that same question: Who am I? He discovers Major Kusanagi, and is intrigued by her because of her human-machine split. In the end, they combine to form an entirely new life form. “Where does the new mind go from here?” she asks as she looks out over the city.

None of that in 17 Ghost. The Major (given another name for most of the movie; it’s only later does she realize her real one) tracks down her past, finding her mother and realizing that the bad AI was one of her fellow artists that the evil corporation killed. “I’m not ready to leave,” she tells the AI, so she stays and remains the same. We last see her standing on a roof, same pose as at the beginning of the film, ready to fight for justice. And so begins Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. No new life forms, no new experiences. Just the old human conditions and experiences.

I almost walked out of this, but I waited because I wanted to see the end. I knew I was going to be sorry, and I wasn’t disappointed. The 95 Ghost in the Shell isn’t a perfect movie, but it does bear rewatching. The new version cut and paste many scenes from the first, but it sucked all the life and intrigue from them. The 17 Ghost does get one thing tight, and that’s the caring the personnel of Section 9 have for each other. There are some nice visuals and performances, but none of this is enough to save it. The soundtrack by Clint Mansell is OK, but they tossed the original music except for a little sample over the credits.

Again, we have to ask: Was this necessary? Can’t we leave well enough alone?

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The fable of the boy in the jungle in three parts

“And this is the last of the Mowgli stories.”

So wrote Rudyard Kipling at the end of “The Spring Running,” one of the stories in The Second Jungle Book. Perhaps he thought so, but his stories about the bare boy raised by wolves in the jungle struck a chord with readers in the final months of the 19th century. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the stories still resonate ­— but perhaps not so much through words but through images.

Modern audiences might not be so likely to have read much of the original words. The Jungle Book was published in 1894, The Second Jungle Book in 1895, a time when India, the setting for the Mowgli stories, was a colonial empire of Great Britain. All of the stories, whether about Mowgli or not, are fables, geared toward giving moral lessons, largely through the use of anthropomorphic animals, most of which would more likely eat a fat human baby instead of raising him and teaching him the Laws of the Jungle. So let’s just set aside what we “know” about the true nature of jungles and animals therein and go with the flow here.

And, as fables, everyone, including Mowgli, speaks like they’re in a session of Parliament:

“I say ye do,” said Mowgli, shooting out his forefinger angrily. “Ye do run away, and I who am the Master of the Jungle, must needs walk alone. How was it last season, when I would gather sugar-cane from the fields of the Man-Pack? I sent a runner — I sent thee! — to Hathi, bidding him to come upon such a night and pluck the sweet grass for me with his trunk.”

Those words, like the opening quote, appear in “The Spring Running” when Mowgli is almost 17 years old, according to Kipling. But even in the first story in the first Jungle Book, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” he was quite the orator:

“Listen, you!” he cried. “There is no need for this dog’s jabber. Ye have told me so often to-night that I am a man (and indeed I would have been a wolf with you to my life’s end), that I feel your words are true. So I do not call ye my brothers any more, but sag [dogs], as a man should. What ye will do, and what ye will not do is not yours to say. That matter is with me …”

That’s from a 10- or 11-year old boy (Kipling isn’t exact on that).

Kipling uses Mowgli, a human among the wild animals of the jungle, to show what he feels is our place in the universe; None of those animals, even Bagheera the Panther, can meet his gaze, even though he be a mere boy. When he finally defeats Shere Khan the tiger, he is the unquestioned Master of the Jungle, even though, again, he’s just a man-cub, a hairless human. And that duality plays out in the three Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book and five in The Second Jungle Book. (Both books contain stories not related to Mowgli, some well-known in their own right: Her Majesty’s Servants, The White Seal, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Toomai of the Elephants, The Miracle of Purun Bhagat, The Undertakers and Quiquern.)

Both books are in the public domain, allowing others to adapt them as they see fit. The most famous probably is the 1967 Walt Disney animated film because, well, it’s Disney and we all have special memories of the bright and musical Disney cartoons, right?

What Disney did, of course, was to strip out any context, themes and morals of the Kipling books.

Granted, those themes and morals are of a colonial, racist society, but Disney’s scrubbings eliminated the story of anything meaningful. Disney reportedly asked the staff working on the project if anyone had read the book; none had. “Good, then don’t. Here’s the story I want.” (As reported in a 2007 documentary, The Bare Necessities: The Making of the Jungle Book). It also would be the last film Disney was personally involved with; he died before it was released.

Mowgli is reduced to a whiny, petulant boy out to just have a good time in the jungle. Baloo the bear is a lazy slob, looking for things to eat, a tree to scratch his back, and a good spot for a nap. Bagheera comes off a little better, except he’s mostly a nagging nanny.

Baloo, even though he’s described as a “sleepy brown bear” in the books, is the one who speaks for Mowgli, urging the wolves accept him as one of their own, saying “there is no harm in a man’s cub.” But Baloo also has a larger responsibility:

Baloo, the Teacher of the law, taught him the Wood and Water Laws: how to tell a rotten branch from a sound one or how to speak politely to the wild bees when he came upon a hive of them fifty feet above ground; … Then, too, Mowgli was taught the Strangers’ Hunting Call, which must be repeated aloud till it is answered … It means, translated. “Give me leave to hunt here because I am hungry”; and the answer is: “Hunt then for food, but not for pleasure.”

And Baloo is one tough teacher:

“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”

“Softly! What does thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is bruised to-day by thy — softness. Ugh.”

“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by those who love him than he should come to harm through ignorance. … Is that not worth a little beating?”

In the books, Bagheera is the second to speak for Mowgli at the wolf council, but he also buys the boy’s acceptance with a fresh-killed bull “according to the Law.” He becomes a friend to Mowgli, often accompanying him on hunting trips and doing his part to explain the boy’s place in the jungle (which has the curious property of having only one panther, one bear, and one tiger). Despite being a panther, Bagheera seems to be more of a softy than Baloo:

“But think of how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all that long talk?”

Disney dispenses of the wolves early; we get a short scene with them at the beginning and that’s it. They don’t even get names. In the books, the wolves are Mowgli’s family, with Raksha, the Wolf Mother, ready to fight to the death to protect the man-cub. Some of the wolves become Mowgli’s friend, but others question his acceptance into the pack, a theme that lasts through all the stories.

Shere Khan the tiger may be the villain of the stories, but he has a point about men: they always bring trouble to the jungle. That’s the source of his hate for Mowgli; man-cubs of any sort have no place there. Disney, though, just makes him into an effete snob who hardly exerts himself to complete his quest.

In the books, what could be called the other villains, the Bandar-log, the monkeys, live in anarchy; there are no rulers, no government, no laws. This, in the eyes of Bagheera and Baloo, makes them contemptible:

“The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds,” Baloo tells Mowgli. “They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle-People.”

These monkeys capture Mowgli and boast of their feat. Mowgli sees no value to a life just swinging from vines, but he’s stuck there until his friends mount a rescue. Even with their strength and claws, though, neither Baloo nor Bagheera can prevail against the sheer numbers of monkeys. Only Kaa can put a stop to all that nonsense. Yes, Kaa, the python, made into a third villain by Disney. Most of us might react to Kaa the way Indiana Jones does — “I hate snakes!” — but in the books, Kaa is a friend to Mowgli. He uses his hypnotizing eyes and silky voice to get Mowgli free of the Bandar-log, but then Kaa suggests the boy, bear and panther might want to leave because what comes next isn’t so pleasant, for Kaa is hungry and a monkey or two will make a nice lunch. (And for allowing himself to be captured by the Bandar-log, Baloo beats the crap out of Mowgli, something Disney did not bother to include.)

In the story “Red Dog” from The Second Jungle Book, Kaa has a big role in Mowgli’s plan to stop the invasion of the dholes, the savage dogs swarming into the jungle, killing everything, including wolves. Kaa carries Mowgli on his back down the river, slipping under the surface as the “little people” — bees — attack the massed dogs, blunting their main thrust as the wolves and other beasts attack their flank and eventually win the war. The description of this fight is the best action sequence of the stories, and it’s odd that the movies have essentially ignored it. But that would make Kaa a good guy, and who wants to make a snake a good guy?

And then there’s King Louie, the singing orangutan, who is a total fabrication. Orangutans don’t live in India, but Disney needed an excuse for another musical number, so we get Louis Prima singing “I wanna be like you” to Mowgli

Those musical numbers are what the ’67 film is essentially all about. The film wasn’t made to tell a story, it was made to showcase clever animation and snazzy songs. Everybody’s fond memories of the cartoon are pretty much wrapped around Phil Harris as Baloo singing The Bare Necessities, Prima’s I Wanna Be Like You and Sterling Holloway as Kaa trying to hypnotize Mowgli with Trust in Me. It’s all catchy, lively and colorful — all the things the Disney animators were great at doing. But does your pleasant memories of the cartoon also include the singing vultures in the form of the Beatles? It was a crass attempt by the Disney people to show how groovy and hip they were by aiming the number at ’60s teenagers. Disney wanted the actual Beatles to voice the characters, but John Lennon reportedly wanted nothing to do with an animated movie. (Yellow Submarine came out a year later, so what the hell, John?)

King Louie, for all his friendliness, really wants the human secret, the “red rose” — fire. It becomes Mowgli’s main weapon against Shere Khan, but the ’67 cartoon just kind of tosses it off when Mowgli ties a burning branch to the tiger’s tail, sending him running off in a panic.

In the book, it’s a lot more complicated. Mowgli, who has been to the man-village to get the fire, brings it to the wolf council where the fate of Akela, one of the wolves who raised Mowgli, is to be decided. The boy is angry because Shere Khan had turned many of the wolves of the pack against him. He calls them dogs, then sets fire to the grass to show how he was master of it and how they fear it. “The Jungle is shut to me,” Mowgli says, but before he goes, he grabs Shere Khan, threatens him with a torch, calls him a coward and proceeds to beat him over the head with the burning branch “and the tiger whimpered and whined in an agony of fear.” Mowgli lets him go, warning “when I next come to the Council Rock, as a man should come, it will be with Shere Khan’s hide on my head.”

Mowgli takes work in the man-village as a buffalo herder. Eventually Shere Khan arrives in the neighborhood, but Mowgli, with the help of his remaining wolf friends, panics the herd and tramples the tiger to death. He then skins the tiger — not an easy task, according to Kipling — and keeps his promise when he returns to Council Rock. None of that appears in the Disney cartoon.

Mowgli might go back to the man-village, but Kipling has a dim view of the local citizenry and their “civilization.” Mowgli even meets a woman who might be his mother, but the people are afraid of him, accusing him of being a wolf-boy. They throw rocks at him, splitting his lip, and imprison the couple who might be his parents. In revenge, Mowgli gets the elephants to rampage through the village, destroying it (after sending the couple to safety).

That didn’t make Disney’s version, either.

Alas, 1967 is so 20th century, right? So in the 21st century, now that the movie-making tools have improved, Disney — the company; Walt’s still dead — has begun a quest to make nearly every animated film it ever made into live-action movies. The Jungle Book presents special problems; if you’re going to put a real boy in the jungle, then the jungle and all who live there must match that reality to be convincing. Making anatomically correct animals look like they’re mouthing English words is pretty hard. Few animals have the musculature or jaw structure for human speech; various attempts over the years have looked pretty silly.

Enter Jon Favreau and his team of computer experts. The 2016 remake of The Jungle Book looks as realistic as can be expected, and sometimes even beyond, even though the jungle, as it says at the end of the credits, exists only in downtown Los Angeles. We are immersed in the jungle, full of old, twisted trees, clinging vines, waterfalls and rivers, grasslands and cliffs. All this is a long way from the days of Pixar’s Tin Toy with its baby from hell.

So, with the technical details taken care of, that leaves the story. In the ’67 Jungle Book, the story was hardly there. In Favreau’s Jungle Book, the menace — the tiger wanting to kill the boy — is brought forward and the narrative in reaction to that theme — the boy realizing he’s a danger to his jungle friends — gives him a reason to leave the jungle.

Favreau dips more into the themes of Kipling than the ’67 movie did, but he still leaves out the colonial and racial issues. In Kipling, Mowgli can stare down any animal simply because he’s human, but Favreau’s Mowgli’s humanity flows from his ability to see, learn and react. He’s occasionally as petulant and stubborn as his ’67 self, but it’s not allowed to define him, nor does it prevent him from maturing.

Kipling has the tiger drift in and out of the stories, and the confrontation and resolution is a bit of the let-down. Favreau makes it the center of the story. Shere Khan is no snob, but a living, breathing force of nature. His reasons for hating Mowgli are clear, his determination to rid the world of the boy is the driving force of the story. All of the other animals defer to him — he is a predator, after all — and when he kills Akela — something even Kipling didn’t do — we know that merely tying a flaming branch to his tail isn’t going to cut it.

Unlike the ’67 Mowgli (and Kipling’s, too), Favreau’s Mowgli rejects confronting Shere Khan with fire. He steals a torch from the man-village, then does an Olympic torch run (while spilling fuel and igniting the jungle). Shere Khan accuses him of bringing destruction upon his friends, so Mowgli tosses the torch aside, leaving him only one weapon to save himself from the tiger’s rage: his cleverness as a tool-using human. (Granted, he gets help from the fire he accidentally started).

Favreau’s Mowgli is an active, thinking human kid, doing what comes naturally for humans in using tools. Bagheera, in trying to keep him a part of the wolf pack, had forbidden such. Baloo, though, recognizes these abilities by challenging Mowgli to get the honey from the beehives attached to high cliffs. The first attempt results in many stings, but he learns from his mistakes and engineers a clever solution, to the horror of Bagheera.

Favreau, in tune with the times, makes his Jungle Book a bit darker. Kaa is a huge, slithering menace, enticing the boy into her — Favreau does a gender switch here — coils by showing him how Shere Khan killed his father. The moment she opens her jaws to swallow the boy whole might be the scariest part of the movie.

Favreau also takes a page from Kipling and restores the elephants’ mystical status as the spirits of the jungle. Disney in ’67 made them bumbling fools, parodying the British upper class. But Favreau’s Mowgli, as part of his rebellion against Bagheera’s restrictions, bravely steps forward and uses his tool-making knowledge to help rescue a baby elephant. The elephants later return the favor by helping Mowgli rectify his mistake with the fire.

The ’67 Jungle Book is one of those back-to-nature wish-fulfillment stories, but the wilderness isn’t so genteel, as Kipling makes clear. His Laws of the Jungle include the protocols for the hunt — and the killing that follows. Several times Kipling mentions Mowgli making a kill, then presumably eating it raw. Neither Disney nor Favreau mention this aspect; indeed, we don’t see animals eating other animals despite the predator-prey relationship. Consumption is limited to bananas, berries, nuts and honey.

And what does Favreau do with King Louie? Instead of bringing in a species that doesn’t live in India, he brings in a species that did live there once but is now extinct. His King Louie is a Gigantopithecus, the last one of the hulking, massive species, a living metaphor for the true nature of the jungle and all that lives there, wild and unpredictable. The boy is small and meek before him — for a while. It takes all the courage and shrewdness he has to escape. Also physical agility against the surprisingly athletic ape.

These scenes, in stories and movies alike, take place in the Cold Lairs, the ruins of an ancient human civilization. For Disney and Favreau, they’re just places where the monkeys and apes gather; but Kipling takes a long paragraph to describe the fabulous treasure piled in heaps around the ruins. It’s guarded by a character not in any of the films, the Father of Cobras, a white snake with a long memory. And who takes Mowgli to this place? Kaa. Here the boy learns about human greed, but he doesn’t understand the concept until he takes an ankus made of gold, ivory and turquoise. He doesn’t even know what it is until Bagheera explains it to him, and in horror, he tosses it away. Eventually men do find the ankus, and before long six of them are dead after fighting over it. Mowgli returns it to the Cold Lairs, telling the white cobra to get help in making sure none of those objects ever leave the ruins again. Yeah, Kipling sometimes can be pretty heavy-handed in telling his fables.

Faverau handles Shere Khan the best of anyone, Kipling included, and the showdown is the best of the lot. The ugly anger of the tiger is shown face-on several times, and when he’s not on-screen, his menace still drifts through like a malevolent fog. Because of this, Favreau gives the boy himself the best story arc — Mowgli grows, finds his own bravery, stands on his own two feet in a direct one-on-one challenge to the tiger. Isn’t that what we ask of all our heroes?

Kipling, once Mowgli skins Shere Kahn, has the boy take the tiger’s hide back to Council Rock to show all the other animals and declare he is lord of the jungle, something neither Disney nor Favreau picks up on. But someone who did was Edgar Rice Burroughs. His hero was raised in the jungle, too, by apes instead of wolves, after his parents die. When he kills the domineering ape, he declares himself lord of the jungle. Burroughs’s hero, Tarzan, also is white, the Lord Greystroke of Britain. Kipling’s Mowgli might be a stand-in for the human race, but at least he’s a native. (Neel Sethi, the lone human in Favreau’s version, is Indian-American; the voice actor on the ’67 cartoon was white). Kipling’s Mowgli is closest to being the feral boy raised in the jungle (aside from the stiff and formal jungle speech), allowing him to dispense with civilization’s benchmarks from manners to jobs. Also clothes, as Kipling makes clear several times:

Akela … gave one piteous look at Mowgli as the boy stood all naked, his long black hair tossing over his shoulders in the light of the blazing branch that made the shadows jump and quiver.

The animals, of course, don’t wear anything either, but they have fur covering almost everything, so they aren’t particularly bothered by nudity. Mowgli isn’t either except when he dons a loincloth when he goes to the man-village. Some artists for the various book versions handle this with coy poses, strategically placed branches and dark shading to preserve dignity. Others adopt the Disney-Favreau device of having Mowgli wear a loincloth, thus saving us from embarrassment. No explanation as to why or where it came from, but Favreau’s Mowgli does have scratches and scars on the his skin, illustrating the vulnerability of unprotected flesh in the jungle.

One way to understand the differences in the three versions is to look at the audiences they were meant for. Kipling was writing for the sons and daughters of a worldwide empire who knew they had the mandate from God to improve the lot of the “primitive” races. We see the language as stilted and awkward, but this was the way the 19th century reader saw the world — formal, serious and fairly humorless. Children of the upper classes were being prepared to make sure the sun did not set anywhere on the British Empire and Kipling was doing his part to educate them (even though he wrote the books in Vermont).

In 1967, Disney’s main audience was the Baby Boomers, the sons and daughters of the people who had been through the Great Depression and World War II. Those parents wanted their children to have what they never could and to live in a world without fear or hatred. Disney and others responded with happy, tuneful, colorful and bright stories, although they did have their dark moments — evil queens, Bambi’s mother being shot, puppies destined to be skinned and made into coats. At the end of the movie, though, evil was banished and everyone started living happily ever after.

Favreau’s audience is more accepting of darkness; look at all the post-apocalyptic stories out there. They’re also less forgiving of ignoring those darker aspects of life. Favreau’s Mowgli faces an enemy out to kill him, but Shere Khan isn’t the only danger. There are stampedes, mudslides, giant snakes, floods, drought and fire itself that could do harm. Mowgli does have friends who help, but in the end, he has to face the dark alone and survive or not on his own abilities.

What’s really interesting here is how none of these guys know how to end Mowgli’s story. The basic plot is that Mowgli is human, and as such, he must return to that world.

Kipling might have said there were no more Mowgli stories, but he did write one in which the adult Mowgli helps a white colonial biologist with his studies. He even gets a pension, even though he still wears little and still lives in the jungle. This is all explained in In the Rukh, a story that does not appear in the Jungle Book collections. Indeed, it was written in 1893, before the Jungle Book stories appeared, so Kipling might have been indulging in a little retconning to explain his hero. Or he just liked the name “Mowgli.” Even if we set that story aside, Kipling does age his boy hero and moves him back and forth between jungle and civilization, but there’s no mention of a wife or significant other.

In the ’67 Disney version, Mowgli slowly moves toward the man-village with pressure from Baloo and Bagheera. He fights this right up until he sees a cute girl from the village singing with the voice of an adult. Nothing’s stronger than instant love, says Disney, so the last we see of him, he’s dazedly following the girl into the village. Baloo and Bagheera congratulate themselves and dance back into the jungle, best friends forever now, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The last scene in Favreau’s version is the same as the first scene, Mowgli racing with the wolves. He lost the first time, but he wins the second, as if barely surviving an encounter with a tiger makes one fleet-footed. He’s also a little taller (one of the downsides of child actors: they grow up), perhaps a little more mature. But he’s still in the jungle; talk of going to the man village has stopped. Mowgli, Bagheera and Baloo share a tree as the final scene ends.

Where does Mowgli belong? We’re saddened by Kipling’s version; Mowgli’s still in the jungle but needs a pension to survive. Disney’s is too pat; what father is going to let a half-naked wild wolf-boy within 20 feet of his daughter? And Favreau just ends on a Disney happy note (sans any girls).

The answer is probably within us. We don’t want Mowgli to “become human,” at least not completely. We want him to stay among his real family, we don’t want to question whether he can really be happy without a human family. Just continue to swing through the trees and swim in the rivers, Mowgli.

Oh, and don’t grow up. Forever free, forever young.


Another victim of the changing technological winds gives up the ghost

Video killed the radio star; streaming killed the video store.

So it is with Hastings Entertainment. The company has thrown in the towel and is in the throes of its final liquidation sales. Once upon a time, it was a source for books (at that time printed on paper) and music (at that time recorded in the grooves of vinyl platters). Video (at that time magnetically recorded on half-inch tape) and video games (at that time recorded on various types of electronic media) came later.

I found my first Hastings in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Amarillo, Texas. Rock music blared from speakers, the record section was huge, the book section was enticing, the posters on the wall bright with color. Some of the stores were found in those temples of consumerism, the indoor mall, but others could be found in the old-style strip shopping centers or stand-alone buildings.

When I went back to New Mexico, I found Hastings already had invaded, including a couple of stores in Santa Fe. Once the legality of home viewing of Hollywood movies on rental tapes was confirmed, Friday nights became busy places as individuals, couples and whole families came in looking for a weekend’s entertainment possibilities. Sometimes all copies of the movie they wanted were all gone, setting tempers on edge. A waiting game was sometimes played as employees brought in the returns from the drive-up drop-off bin. That paid off only occasionally, but for some customers, always worth the chance.

I worked one summer at one of the SF Hastings stores. I was assigned the Books section (naturally), and found that the chain practiced what I call the “shallow inventory.” This meant only those books that moved fairly quickly were stocked and if they didn’t, they were out. Even so, the sheer number of books was amazing. Once, the entire staff stayed all night doing a “purge” — the managers called it “inventory” — where we pointed a hand-held electronic device at the UPC code (the store pasted its own code over the publisher’s before the book went on the shelf) and if it beeped, the book was pulled. By daybreak, the aisles were jammed with the new rejects, which soon disappeared from the store, probably as fodder for the pulp mills. Or to return as bargain books to be placed on the special shelves. You could get some pretty good books for little money but of course the authors don’t get a cut of sales. Cheap for you, total loss for them.

Stocking the shelves was the Task That Would Not Die. The guys in receiving would cram wheeled carts with the night’s arrivals and they’d be waiting when I reported for work. Morning, noon or night, those damn carts never seemed to empty. Help a customer find a book, go back to shelving the new ones. Clean up the children’s section — another constant task; kids, you know? — go back to shelving books. Make the four thermoses of coffee in the morning, go back to shelving books. Put away the magazines and books left on the chairs where the customers had been reading and drinking coffee like the place was Starbucks (also just getting going), go back to shelving books. It lasted until it was time to play janitor and vacuum around the Books desk, the last task if you were the closer. During the night, some strange magic would be performed and the stocking carts would appear the next day loaded to the point of collapse again.

The only respite came when I was assigned to a cashier slot. I hated that, I’d rather shelve books than cashier. I’m not a people person, so being pleasant to a long line of customers was a real trial. Most of the customers were video renters, and if late charges showed up their accounts, they could get nasty. Gift certificates — not cards then, paper, another sign of antiquity — took special processing. And the soda companies thought it’d be fun to stick coupons for free drinks on the caps of the plastic bottles, creating another pain for cashiers.

Vinyl records were still the main option for music when I started. There was something zen about standing flipping through the eye-catching art on the sleeves. But, technology changes, as it always does, and new gadgets started rolling in. First it was cassette tapes (eight-track tape cartridges had pretty much withered away), then CDs slowly started to proliferate. (Digital audio tapes, DATs, came and went practically unnoticed.)  Vinyl is having its last laugh, though, rising from the dead on wings of audiophile preferences.

On the video side, VHS won the war against Betamax, but soon they were succumbing to DVDs. Tech advances add new capabilities, but the disks seem to be the end of physical media. Streaming is the new paradigm for now, as it is for music and video games. Books still cling to printed life against e-books, but Hastings evidently missed the import of all this streaming and electronic downloading and such. So it has to pay the piper, as it were.

One time my friend and I were waiting our turn to get a Saturday night movie when a woman in the next line freaked because she didn’t want her name entered in the store’s computer. That’s Santa Fe, N.M., folks, and that’s not unusual. She asked if there was a video store that didn’t use computers, and, that again being Santa Fe, of course there was.

(That store was called Video Library, and Hastings reportedly opened a second store in SF with the express purpose of running them out of business. Didn’t work; they’re still renting VHS tapes and DVDs and still keeping track of them on file cards filled out with pencil. The locally owned bookstore, Collected Works, also has out-lasted Hastings. The record store, alas, didn’t.)

When Santa Fe raised the minimum wage, Hastings retaliated by closing one store (the one I had worked at, but I’d long since left). That left the one in the DeVargas Mall Center, which needed a viable store badly at the time as malls themselves were being rattled by changes in shopping habits. It wasn’t the only video store in town, but the Friday and Saturday crowds made it seem so.

In their heyday, the stores became nodes for pop culture. Comic books became a staple, and the stores stocked theme merchandise, everything from bobble-head dolls to clothing to posters to kids toys. Some electronics, too; headphones, portable players, that sort of thing. The last time I saw a Hasting store, the shelves were jammed, the music loud, the lights flashing. What they looked like the day before the bankruptcy was announced I don’t know.

The other cultural phenomenon Hasting rode for a while was the rise of the “speculation genres” — science fiction, fantasy, horror — into the mainstream of popular culture. The revolution in special effects in movies made possible by computers helped spark this boom. It was necessary. Harry Potter had jolted popular culture with a huge blast of storytelling magic. Seeing the movie version with the old special effect methods would have made them laughingstocks. Suddenly stories that had been around for years — Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Beowulf — became fodder for the new tech in the new movies. Along with that was the realization that books for children and young adults held some great source material for Hollywood producers eager to get a share of the disposable income the new generations of entertainment-savvy youngsters had rattling in their pockets.

I asked George R.R. Martin during a signing in the DeVargas store why he, having spent time in Hollywood working on TV shows, thought the old, venerable tales like Lord of the Rings had to be made into movies. He gestured around at the store with its mass of merchandise and said something like “it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” Uh, yeah, I said, but beyond money, isn’t just reading books good enough any more? We did agree that visual storytelling pulled in more people to the material than just books could, and perhaps some of them then would turn to the original sources, which was a good thing. Thus was Hasting’s mission defined: To be a conduit for fans to get access to their favorite stories be it videos, CDs, books, video games or music.

(This conversation likely took place around the time of the publication of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Yes, it was possible to have a conversation with George at a signing because not many people showed up that day. Not like now, when such an event would cause eager fans to form a line that would go out the door, up the highway and into the next county. Plus, at that time, he had no desire to make a movie or TV series out of his tale. Ha, ha, ha, how quickly things change, right?.)

I don’t mean to suggest that Hastings was a haven for all that was cool and hip. It was a corporate operation that looked upon all that merchandise with a cold eye for profits, not cultural milestones. The stores looked pretty much the same inside wherever they were. The music playing on the sound system generally was top-forty, with only an occasional foray into something cutting-edge. (And when that happened, it was quite noticeable.) The trailers playing on the monitors above the cashier stations were for that week’s new movies, but if you wanted something more esoteric — small independent, foreign, cult, obscure — your best bet was to hit one of the local video stores. Same with the books. Same with the games. Same with the music.

The shutdown of the chain signifies the end of another American cultural touchstone, like the passing of the malt shops of the ’50s or the malls of the ’70s, and ’80s. And while Gen-Xers and Millennials might look upon this as just another Baby Boomer lamenting the passing of his childhood, it could be worse — this could be about head shops with their psychedelic posters, background sitar music, albums (vinyl, of course) with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix and such filling the racks, all in a haze of incense (and perhaps something, shall we say, more pungent). So count your lucky stars.

So long, Hastings, you were a bright and noisy source for home entertainment and the occasional community hang-out for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy some stuff from Amazon.com.


The sad fate of the giant who tried to charm American audiences

With the continuing blitz of summer blockbusters wherein blocks get busted in boring repetition, let’s lament the fate of the big, friendly giant.

He was funny, he was clumsy but he could be graceful under pressure, he was confused, he was resolute. And he made a life-long friend, something that can be pretty hard to do no matter how tall or short you are.

He had Roald Dahl, the Phillip K. Dick of juvenile literature, to write the original story and Steven Spielberg behind the camera to tell his cinematic story. What could go wrong?

Apparently the audience not caring for something different, something unusual, something not so explosion-ey and bang-ey and frenetic, that’s what. Many of those same people who stayed away in droves were the same ones who often decry a lack of imagination and the cookie-cutter look of the usual summer movie fare. Talking blarney, it seems.

The BFG was a meditative piece on friendship and belonging, with a dash of slapstick humor that involved the queen of England. It had gorgeous visuals of London at night and of landscapes seen mostly in dreams. Yeah, the really big giants were ugly and noisy, but you knew those bullies were going to get their comeuppance, again with the help of the queen. Perhaps that was one of the problems — the brutes were left isolated with only slaps on their big hands as punishment instead of being blown all over the landscape by a revenge-minded hero.

The casting of the main giant also might have been problematic. Rumors say Robin Williams had been considered for the role, but that ended with his death. Spielberg chose Mark Rylance, not exactly a big name among American celebrities. Probably because he’s British — but who better to play a Dahl character than a Brit? He’s also a damn fine actor, as anyone who’s seen him as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall on PBS can attest. He has a Shakespearean pedigree — including artistic director of the Shakespeare Globe Theater in London — and also is a playwright. He played the spy Rudolf Abel in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and got the attention of American moviegoers when he won an Academy Award for that role. An odd choice, you might think, for a kiddie movie, but Rylance is an actor’s actor. He’s been CGI’ed to exaggerate facial features — the BFG has ears large enough to use as sails — but it doesn’t hide his acting chops.

The story centers on Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a lonely orphan who can’t sleep. In the dead of night, she sees the BFG — Big Friendly Giant, in case you were wondering — who panics and grabs her right out of her bed and lopes off with her in a bag. Not so friendly, and it takes a little time for the girl to warm up to this oversized creature who talks funny and isn’t really the neatest housekeeper. But the giant captures children’s dreams and distributes them to their owners. Meanwhile, his bigger brethren aren’t so welcoming to Sophie  — they’d rather have her for a snack.

Nightmarish stuff, right? But that’s Dahl, who seems to pick odd ways of telling stories that show kids how to deal with life. A giant peach? A glass elevator? A candy factory? Dahl often puts his child heroes into frightening situations, only to make their triumphs that much more earned and satisfying.

Spielberg, of course, can’t resist adding a little sweetener to the mix. That’s what he does, and it shows in the third act when Sophia and the BFG meet the queen. It gets a little off-track with the fart jokes — yes, fart jokes in Buckingham Palace (the corgis, at least, are hilarious) — but the ending is happy, though, as pretty much usual in Dahl stories, a little bittersweet.

The BFG is a charming, lively film, which makes it a tragedy that audiences rejected it. Come on, people, try something different from the usual summer bombastic fare. You’ll be entertained, amused and involved.

Just beware the wine where the bubbles go down, not up.


The ‘Star Wars’ juggernaut is about to squeeze your wallet thinner than a light-saber beam

With the special showings to privileged people and backers just hours away and the general opening for everyone else days away of the new Stars Wars movie, The Hype Awakens Revenge of the Corporation The Monetization of Fandom The Force Awakens (hereinafter known as Star Wars 7 or SW7), a review of the protocols to ensure that the common consumers are given the fullest opportunity to spend as much as they can and beyond and will do so with the correct attitude. That is, with open wallets and shut mouths.

Corporations with no connections to the movie business whatsoever, as they have been doing all of 2015, will be doing promotions both serious and silly as per orders and guidance from the Walt Disney Company. As the time for the suckers common movie fans to be allowed to view the movie approaches, these efforts will increase this week until almost everything else has been pushed aside and all media outlets, personal blogs, online sites, TV commercials, podcasts, “factual” programs on the few remaining radio stations and “neutral” articles appearing in the few remaining newspapers will have some kind of mention of Star Wars as many times as possible. Intrusions of unwanted and unsanctioned “news” material‑ presidential campaigns, climate change, terrorism, interest rates, food poisonings at chain restaurants, police-citizen clashes, immigrants, natural disasters and such ‑ should be expected, but Disney representatives will be working closely with media CEOs and their minions to assure that not too much time is wasted on those issues and time better spent presenting articles and related material about the Star Wars 7 movie. Non-cooperating media venues will be cut off from future coverage ‑ including but not limited to press junkets, one-on-one interviews with Disney celebrities, access to “leaks” ‑ of Star Wars, Marvel Universe, Pixar, Muppets or any Disney-owned entertainment venues for a period not less than ten years (by which time, it is felt, such discordant organizations will have faded away).

(And sometimes, help just falls out of the heavens ‑ so to speak ‑ from the unlikeliest places. Last week, a NASA scientist discussed how to build a Death Star out of asteroids. Don’t you just love those “scientific” nerds?)

Beginning at the Thursday, Dec. 17 first screenings and continuing until the end of the year, special crowd control officers will be deployed to theaters across the country to ensure that no less than 90 percent of common customers buy tickets for Star Wars 7. Although some officials at the company and associated investors would rather see a higher mandatory percentage, it is felt that allowing some customers to see other movies opening/still playing (sort of like standing on a beach as a hurricane come ashore, as it were) will count as a public-relations gesture to show that the Disney company can be lenient. (Besides, a Disney film, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, is one of those movies still playing. Unfortunately, it needs the help as it is not performing to Disney standards. This is unacceptable and an internal review has already been launched.)

There have been rumblings among stockholders and other investors that the income from the already released Star Warts Wars 7 merchandise has not generated enough billions of dollars, that many were expecting trillions. The Disney company urges patience; after all, the movie, as of this date, hasn’t even been released yet. The mountains of cash are still to come, believe it.

The campaign since the announcement that SW7 will be a reality has worked well. Anticipation is at a fever pitch, and thanks must be given to the PR and marketing departments. The little tidbits that have been allowed to dribble out have caused massive reactions among what’s laughingly called “fanboys.” (It has been hysterical to watch). And in another brilliant move, film reviewers will not be given advance screenings so their judgmental articles about the film won’t be seen before the mass audience is snookered lured ordered allowed in. Who needs ’em? Yeah, fuck you, movie reviewer, and the Prius you rode in on.

***

So I’m not a real fan of Star Wars (hey, really? gosh). You may see the above as a cynical take on studio motives, but I say there’s more than a few grains of truth in there. Ever since the original Star Wars in 1977 became a monster hit, the reaction by money people switched from “What the hell is this??” to “Cash cow, we gotta get our hooks into it.” Entertainment became a strictly a secondary consideration.

Now, George Lucas definitely set out to make something entertaining. The first Star Wars film ‑ A New Hope, as it later became known ‑ made such an impact because Lucas was in love with old science fiction (hereinafter called SF) movies, serials and old TV shows and he made the world in the movie look like something that could exist, solid and real, not something automatically cheesy and ridiculous. The story itself is as old as humanity, as has been mentioned ad nauseam. Being a “space” adventure adds nothing to this story: Light sabers are swords, Jedi masters are wizards, X-wings are horses, the Millennium Falcon is a pirate galley, the Emperor is an evil witch-king, the Death Star is a windmill, Princess Leia is a damsel in distress. (Yes, admittedly, a kick-ass damsel, but stop and ask — how many other women are there in the original trilogy?)

The packaging was part of the appeal, the characters were another. The hero, Luke, is as bland as heroes in these stories tend to come, but, again, as usual in such stories, he’s surrounded by characters who are much more interesting. The plot? Callow youth reluctantly goes on journey that ends with the collapse of the social order and he’s hailed a hero for causing that.

(In this discussion of the Star Wars films, I do not include the prequels or whatever they’re called. They made such a mess of what the original trilogy had established that I just pretend they don’t exist.)

So, what can we expect from the third trilogy? More of the same. This isn’t an independent film exploring the vagaries of human emotions . This is an action franchise. The plot , as based on what’s been discussed all over the web and seen in the trailers, is about some kind of resistance fighting some kind of empire-leftovers. Dogfights ‘twixt A-wings and TIE fighters are in the mix. (In the trailers, some of these take place in the atmosphere of a planet, so they look at least a little realistic. These kinds of dogfights cannot happen the same way in space, but I have a hunch that’s going to be ignored just as it was in the originals.) Looks like there’s going to be a scene in a cantina, maybe even the same one as in the first movie. (SW7 supposedly takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, so if the cantina is still in business, that’s a remarkable accomplishment. Those wretched examples of scum and villainy sure are loyal.)

And there are new things, too. Can’t afford to piss off the merchandisers. There’s a droid call BB-8, a rollicking, rolling machine whose purpose I can’t fathom. And is that a love interest for R2-D2, all pink and cute? (Will there be a love scene ‘twixt the two? Better hope not.) And what about C3PO? Is he just his irritating self, no love interest for him? And while the X-wings and TIE fighters are leftovers from the originals, they’ve been “updated,” so of course that means a whole new toy line. Don’t want to be caught with 30-year-old versions, do we? And, of course, all sorts of other machines, weapons, space ships, characters too numerous to mention. So fanboys, get them wallets open. Time’s a-wastin’!

What SW7 won’t have is Darth Vader (unless they go the comic-book superhero route and say “He’s not really dead, he just looked it.”) Vader is one of the greatest villains to menace the heroes on-screen. Even my jaded self remembers the thrill when he first stepped through the smoke to the thomp-thomp of John Williams’ music. Man, I had high hopes for him. I didn’t want him to be human, I wanted him to be a physical manifestation of the evil Emperor’s hate, coalesced into this humanoid form that cannot exist outside of the mechanical suit. A truly evil being, with no remorse and no humanity whatsoever. Alas, he was just someone’s dad who once gave in to lust and thus allowed himself to be turned to the dark side. (See, teen-agers? Stop that fooling around before it’s too late.) So with Vader dead (we think), we need a new villain. The trailers have showed us some guy in a dark mask vowing to continue Vader’s work. See? More of the same. Vader-light will give the heroes hell until he’s taken down by those same heroes. Luke Skywalker might be that hero, but since we haven’t seen Luke in the trailers we don’t know what he’s been up to these last 30 years.

One of the things I’m hoping for in this new trilogy is a career boost for John Boyega. (His character is Finn, an odd name for the SW universe. Could be worse, though, he could’ve been Capt. Phasma (Capt. Phasma? Sounds like someone out of those cheesy ’50s TV SF shows). Boyega was terrific in Attack the Block (2011) as the guy who first causes alien monsters to invade his neighborhood, then takes the lead in getting them out, even to sacrificing his own freedom. That character had an edge, an uncompromising sense of right. Those rough edges probably have been sanded off for SW7, but I hope he stashes the money from these movies in the bank and then chooses some challenging parts in future movies. Luck, Mr. Boyega.

What Should Happen in SW7 but is Highly Unlikely: The rebels, after successfully bringing down the Empire, have split into factions and the years spent years fighting among themselves have finally resulted in a government that in order to solidify its position, turns into something worse than the Empire ever was. (The Empire grew out of trade disagreements; this government rose out of ideological conflict.) In order to try to regain the ideals and hopes ( a new new hope, in other words) of the original rebellion, a new rebellion flares with Princess General Leia in command. A new generation of young rebels answers the call, including at least one new force-sensitive warrior, who has to face a new almost-Sith lord, Luke Skywalker He is such an emotional wreck that the new Emperor-wannabe has twisted Luke’s mind into believing what he’s doing is righteous and correct. Instead of destroying Luke, she (yes, please, let the new Jedi warrior be a woman) helps him see where it all went wrong and after a painful self-examination and purge of the dark side, turns around and tries to save the new rebellion and redeem himself.

And what of Han and Chewbacca? I have no clue. The trailers show them back on the Millennium Falcon, but why? That ship was a wreck in the original trilogy, 30 years later it should be scrap. And if it had been kept up, perhaps the current owners aren’t too happy about giving it up to these old dudes with vainglorious boasts about the old days and their part in the Empire’s demise. Perhaps Han went rogue again, abandoning Leia and any children, and he and Chewie went back to their old smuggling ways and Han is now the new Jabba. Redemption is required all around.

Well, as you can see, my ideas have nothing to do with the actual SW universe. The fans must be placated, they must like the new Star Wars, otherwise they might not shell out as much of their money as they’re supposed to. Yeah, that’s cynical, but I will allow that the movie might have a few nice surprises for me. I also have no doubt it will be an entertaining, wild romp in the SW universe and just might well bring a totally new take to the story.

However ‑ keep this in mind, padawan. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (awakens? I thought the force was a big part of the New Hope-Strikes Back-Return pantheon; where’s it been the last 30 years? wouldn’t a better title be The Force Re-awakens?) was directed by J.J. Abrams. The same J.J. Abrams who destroyed the Star Trek franchise.

Just sayin’.


Of Plasticine dinosaurs and muddled storytelling

If you’re going to tell a story that suggests the dinosaur-killing asteroid missed, then you should be prepared to follow through and explore the ramifications of that idea.

If you’re going to let several million years pass before your story begins, you should allow for “nature” to progress for all living creatures, not just a few. All of your creatures should be subject to the same rules that all of the other living things — plants, animals, birds, insects, bacteria — are subject to. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a misshapen ecology.

You’ll end up with The Good Dinosaur.

(Spoilers coming)

Basically, the film makes no sense as a story. It’s beautiful to look at, and an occasional interesting moment arrives and leaves, but overall it looks like the result of one of those “I know!” ideas that people have and they get all excited and have what they think are dynamite ideas and they work hard on them, but no one ever steps back and says “I don’t think the pieces are connecting very well.”

Pixar being Pixar, they never do things by half measures, as seen in the incredible landscapes that are based on U.S. government geological maps and data of Wyoming and Montana. It’s not all one-to-one correlation, there are made-up mountains and rivers and such, but the real places served as a base for software programs. Real mountains rise in rocky splendor, real rivers flow through canyons with liquid movement, real trees make up the forests, real clouds from puffy to intimidating thunderheads fill the skies — or so it looks. A common reaction from a viewer might be “I’ve been there.” Maybe not that exact spot, but you’ll be reminded of a hike, or camping in a forest, or fishing in a favorite river bend, or climbing up mountain sometime in your real life.

The details don’t just apply to the grand landscapes, either. One scene takes place in a shallow river edge where the water is just a few inches deep. We see how the light dances on the water surface, we see the sunshine reach the flattened, smooth stones that line the riverbed and we see it all bathed in a golden glow of late afternoon light.

Exquisite.

But then we see a toy dinosaur made of green Plasticine as if some kid had dropped it there. Its skin is a smooth, featureless shape, its toes are just lumps of clay and its face looks like it was drawn by a 10-year-old.

The story was written for 10-year-olds, too.

Well, let’s be fair. While the story is typical Disney-Hollywood fare, it’s been around since someone thought that morals and lessons are important ingredients for stories. A frightened youth loses/has already lost one or both parents must face his, hers, fears and learn how grow up emotionally and mentally in the world. This generally requires a journey, help from unexpected friends, advice from an old sage or two, a threat or two to be overcome, and a triumphant return home.

The twist here is the youngster is a dinosaur, an apatosaurus named Arlo. True to the story, he’s the runt of the litter, and as the runt, he’s afraid of everything, including the family “chickens.” His older brother, Buck, and sister, Libby, dump on him for being such a weenie. He botches every task his father assigns him in trying to make a man dinosaur of Arlo. Poppa builds a corn silo, and it’s good, so he gets to put his mark — a footprint — on the side. Buck chops down trees with his tail, and it’s good, so he gets to make his mark on the silo. Libby plows the field with her face, and it’s good, so she gets to make her mark. Momma does something extra — she’s the mother, what extra does she need to do? — and gets to put her mark on the silo. Arlo is a dweeb so he doesn’t get to put his mark there. (Buck and Libby, being competent and obedient, are like all the competent and obedient siblings in these stories: They don’t get to go on an adventure. They stay home and do extra chores to make up for the missing runt. That’s what you get for being normal, people.)

So — Poppa gives Arlo one last chance: trap the critter that’s been eating the family’s winter stash, then bash his head in with the club he’s going to be holding in his mouth. Of course, Arlo fails, and Poppa finally gets mad and makes Arlo come with him to chase after the critter. In the chase, Arlo gets hurt — of course — and Poppa gets swept away in a flash flood. Of course. Arlo, wracked with guilt, vows to do better, so the next time the critter shows up, he chases him and falls into the river and is swept away. Let the adventure begin!

This is a story that could be told with anyone — and, apparently, any thing — in the title roles. There is nothing in Good Dinosaur that shows how putting dinosaurs as the central figures can change the story. It’s just humans in dino disguise. But, it’s the meteor, see? It missed, and —

That’s the “I have a great idea!” moment. The meteor missed, and everything changed. Except it didn’t. As has been pointed out elsewhere. these dinosaurs never got the advantage of natural selection, the process that favors physiological change that gives a species an advantage in survival. They don’t have hands (except for the T-rexes and we all know how funny their hands are, giggle snort), they don’t walk on two feet, they don’t shrink in size so they don’t need as much food to survive the winter, they don’t even evolve feathers or fur. (Some raptors have a few feathers, Pixar’s bone to evolution, but even after all these millennia, the raptors never developed the ability to fly.) So they’re stuck with plowing the fields with their faces ’cause they didn’t develop many tools, either. To water the crops, they must suck in great amounts of water and blow it all back out like land-borne whales. They lift rocks and branches with their teeth, and, as Buck demonstrated, use their tails to cut down trees. (And those tails slice through easily, despite not having developed any bone or a hardened shell.) We see woven ropes knotted around containers, but we don’t see how the weaving is done. They’ve built themselves a dugout house — which has to be packed pretty full when everyone’s home — but we don’t see any outhouses. Maybe they just poop in the river. (It’s like in Pixar’s Cars — the characters drive up to the gas pump but have no hands or arms to pick up the nozzle, jam it into their own sides and squeeze the trigger. Some things humankind is not meant to know.)

This is where evolution got the dinosaurs when the meteor missed — hardly anywhere. The most realistic dinosaurs in the film at the beginning when we see the errant meteor blaze a trail overhead and some grazing dinos look up for a moment, then go back to grazing. That scene looks like it was stolen lifted borrowed from the “Rite of Spring” section of the first Fantasia movie.

Everything else gets to evolve, though. Trees — both evergreen and deciduous — flowering plants, fruit-bearing plants, insects, birds (wait — birds? did some dinos evolve after all?) snakes (with hands, no less) and insects. Especially fireflies. Oh, the dinos do love them fireflies. In fact, maybe only fireflies. I saw no clouds of stinging flies, no dino blood-sucking mosquitoes, no biting ants, no multi-legged horrors crawling out from under a rock just as you’re dropping off to sleep.

The biggest beneficiaries of evolution in this universe are the mammals. This is actually where Good Dinosaur got a few things right. In the days of real dinosaurs, mammals were small, timid creatures trying to avoid getting stomped/chomped by the ruling species.

But this is not the world of real dinosaurs, or dinosaurs that act like real dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex has become to be known, through the fossil evidence, as a fearsome meat-eater. According to Pixar, though, if left alone they would evolve into — cowboys, complete with folksy, western accents and slang. Oh, they’re big and have huge teeth, but they evidently they don’t eat their own kind (i.e., other dinosaurs). They fight off rustling raptors by chomping down on them hard — then hurling them away. After a hard day of rustler flinging, they sit around a campfire and tell tall tales. And what are they cowboys of? Big, hairy, shaggy beasts — mammalian beasts. You’re supposed to read “buffalo” here, but “cowboys” is a Texas thing, don’t y’all know, so we’re gonna call ’em “longhorns.” And longhorns they are, a sort of amalgamation of buffalo and steer. Well, then, you ask, did horses evolve so that the “cowboys” could have something to ride on? No, they did not. The T-rexboys must chase the herd on foot. We also don’t see them, y’know, chowing down, either. Do the T-rexes slaughter the beasts, then roast them over an open fire? Or do they just jump on one and rip the thing apart with their teeth and swallow raw chunks, including the innards? Alas, we never find out. Someone decided such questions are too intense for young viewers, but I’d bet money some of those young viewers are asking that very question.

So there are some large mammals in this world. Which brings us to another set of mammals, without whom we’d have nothing to empathize with: humans. (Did the filmmakers, in addition to saying “what if the meteor missed?” also ask “what if humans walked with dinosaurs?” which opens a whole other paleontological/theological can of worms.) Remember that critter that kept getting into the dino family food? That was a feral boy, age indeterminate, who doesn’t talk, doesn’t walk on two feet, scratches himself and thumps the floor with his rear leg like a dog, and howls like a dog. He’s an orphan, of course, lost and alone, so he makes friends with the clumsy dinosaur, helping him find food, protecting him from threats such as the snake-with-hands, and goading Arlo into action, usually by biting him. However, as feral as he is, he’s still civilized enough to wear a breech clout (made of bark and leaves, evidently). All the humans wear something, though the “domesticated” dinosaurs don’t. (They don’t have genitals, either, so reproduction among them is one of those mysteries humans etc., etc.) We can’t have naked humans in a Hollywood movie, even feral ones (Mowgli, Tarzan), but it makes the dinosaurs that much more cartoony, separating them from the humans. The dinosaurs may be civilized, but they’re reptiles, after all, they’ll never amount to much. Later, when the boy meets a pack of humans, they all have clothes, too. Where do the clothes come from? Do the humans have a pact with the T-rexes to get the pelts of the longhorns who ended up as dinner? Are there other large mammals around that the humans hunt? Have humans developed tools to make them? The short scene with them gives us no clues.

And, yes, I said “pack” of humans. The humans communicate by howling, and they move mostly on all fours, However, their evolution gave them the same arms and legs we have now, which have developed to help us stand. We no longer are built to move like that, despite we see on the screen, and it looks difficult. Still, the last we see of the boy he’s standing on his own two feet. (If that isn’t a metaphor for the whole movie, I don’t know what is.)

All of the mammals, human and otherwise, fit better into this world than the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are these plastic creations superimposed on the landscape; the mammals live in it.

Well, anyway, the boy — eventually we learn his name is Spot, arf, arf, arf — saves Arlo’s butt and they become fast friends. (Spot is more interesting as a character than Arlo, IMHO.) Arlo learns bravery and finds maturity by in turn rescuing Spot from ravenous pterodactyls, a flash flood (again) and against all other odds the writers can think of and —

Spoiler: Arlo goes home, and because he did something good, gets to put his mark on the silo next to Poppa’s (those prints are mud, how do they stay put in the rain?) because he’s now a hero because he saved the life of the boy who’s head he was supposed to bash in ’cause the boy was stealing their winter food but because Arlo failed to do that, he and Poppa had to try and catch the thief but they got caught in a flash flood that killed Poppa which made Arlo very sad and angry and later chased the boy again but got lost and without the help of the thief he would have starved to death, been trampled or killed in a flood and so he saved the thief from being eaten/drowned but was man dinosaur enough to send the boy with his own people and finally made his way back after the harvest was in. Yup, he deserves a mark all right.

Dude, you’ll probably be saying, you’re putting way too much into this, man, it’s just a cartoon. And you’d be right. On the surface, the film can be a delight for all of the things we expect in a Pixar movie. But there is also something missing, something that pulls against the movie as a whole.

Pixar filmmakers are known for their meticulous and thoughtful preparation and production, not afraid to revamp or shut down a film they don’t think is working. This one reportedly got one of those revampings, but I think they went off on the wrong track. Instead of going where the idea took them, they put on the brakes and switched to an easier route. Questions they should have asked: After 65 million years, what would a dinosaur society look like? What would the dinosaurs themselves look like? Can tools really be used by picking them up in your mouth? (Though Arlo later does knock a pterodactyl out of the air by throwing a club that way)? Would humans develop a canine sense of smell and locomotion? Would humans and dinosaurs really get along? (Or, as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, would they just eat us?) Instead, they gave us a kiddie cartoon with some of the most realistic settings ever seen in an animated movie. They pulled back from where the idea was taking them in favor of just another coming-of-age story. They spent a lot of time and effort in getting the settings perfect, but they are not extrapolations of landscapes of the age of dinosaurs. Walt Disney constantly was trying to make animated films “real,” but sometimes going real undermines all the other elements of the film. Realistic mountains and clouds, but cartoony dinosaurs, the central element of the film. It does not work.

There was so much potential here that was lost. I just wish the creators had the courage to follow some of the more interesting aspects of their great idea.


At play in the universe of S.M. Stirling

The old world goes away and the new one comes in with strife, terror and death …

These days, that seems to be the only story, told well or poorly. One of the better ones, though — one with depth, complex and emotional characters, incredible details from the food the characters eat to the armor they wear to the lands they travel through — is The Change series by S.M. Stirling

Back in 1998, Nantucket Island was suddenly whisked off to Bronze Age Europe. That was the start, three books worth, but then Stirling turned his attention to a part of the world that was left behind, and thus began the Emberverse Series. That started in 2004 with Dies the Fire and has continued through ten more books with the 12th, The Desert and the Blade, due in September. What happened to the world wasn’t pretty — electricity stopped flowing, steam power lost its punch, explosives lost their bang and internal combustion engines stalled forever — and the books have chronicled how a real post-modern history has unfolded with the rise and fall of kingdoms, petty tyrants and religious fanatics (with a real edge to them). And underneath it all, good people trying to find answers and create new societies.

Though Stirling gave us a peek at some of the rest of the U.S. — his characters had to traverse the continent on a quest, after all — and some hints about the rest of the world (hint: Prince Charles does not come off very well), he, like any author building new worlds, has to limit his scope in order to keep the story on track. So he generously opened his world to other writers, asking them to write short stories, setting them wherever they liked as long as the rules of the universe are followed.

The result is The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth (ROC, $27.95). Fifteen authors telling 16 stories (Stirling tells one of his own) in several places around the globe, including Florida, California, New Mexico, Nebraska, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Canada, Australia and Greek galleys battling it out in the Mediterranean,

Authors, both known and upcoming, include A.M. Dellamonica, Kier Salmon, Lauren C. Teffeau, M.T. Reiten, John Jos. Miller, Victor Milan, John Birmingham, Walter Jon Williams, John Barnes, Harry Turtledove, Jane Lindskold, Jody Lynn Nye, Emily Mah, and Diana Paxson.

And Terry England. Yeah, me. And I can tell you I’m proud and honored to be a part of this.