Saturday, December 22, 2012

Childlike Belief

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Tuesday night I did two things I've never done before, no make that three: bought a movie ticket for a friend, run across the street ten minutes to movie time to buy sugar-free, dairy-free snacks because the local candy store lacked such delicacies, and question my longtime Christmas cynicism. The movie in question was Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks' newest release.
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The first thing needs no explanation, because we've all done nice things for friends on whom we've previously cancelled. The second one involved dashing across the street in jeans and sneakers, giggling like maniacs and scanning the shelves for sugar-free chocolate and trail mix. Calorie-burning laughter escaped our lips as we dashed up the steps past a surprised four-year old with his action figure and an older man who didn't know to buy tickets downstairs. Because it was a Tuesday night that offered no discounts, we chose our seats with giddy glee. We had missed most of the previews, and for good reason; only two preview promised films worth watching.

Rise of the Guardians started with Jack Frost realizing that no one could see him. We couldn't help but lean in closer as children from the middle ages passed through him and Pitch Black started to form nightmares. As we met the Australian Easter Bunny, Hummingbird-like Tooth Fairy, and a buff Santa Claus, mature cynicism battled with laments as children lost faith in their quarter-giving, egg-donating heroes. My mind turned to the past for the first time, with a painful retrospect.

I have three older siblings; one bought Christmas presents in Santa's name for two years and hid them in our kitchen, and the other ratted her out two years after the fact. My belief in Santa Claus shattered like a glass of lemonade on a concrete sidewalk. A similar thing happened when the Tooth Fairy left a dollar but forgot the tooth, sandwiched between two pillows. Anger replaced the shock, and acceptance replaced the anger. After all, wanting things was selfish, and we could use the occasion to be generous?
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For ten years I have believed that notion, that writing letters to Santa denoted selfishness, that Christmas focused on getting rather than giving. Rise of the Guardians challenges that notion, asking, "What if the holiday entities need us, instead of us needing them? Is it wrong to be selfish, wanting quarters for teeth and colored eggs?"

The question stirs unwanted feelings, guilt that I've made fun of reality intruding on dreams, and frantic grasping for that childhood selfishness, realizing that it has vanished. Unlike the lucky kids in the movie, the stubborn adult in me knows that Jack Frost and North won't appear to protect me from trampling nightmares. I have to protect my imagination with vengeance from fear and monsters. Neil Gaiman's Sandman has inoculated me against the movie's cute, innocent dream weaver, so I could only enjoy his golden incarnate as a character rather than an entity.  
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The movie also taught me something important: don't ruin the Guardians' existence for other children; let them enjoy the fantasy of Christmas morning and baby teeth while they can. Losing belief is like losing a broken-winged butterfly to a hurricane. Gusts carry the insect away with green lawn chairs and palm branches, but you don't stop trying to grasp it, to save it from the cruel weather. At some point the rain splatters between your eyebrows along with angry resignation. The years pass, no more hurricanes come, and the anger fades. Adulthood settles in, as do new fantasies and realities. We can never recollect the original butterfly, and it remains the most precious by having appeared first. 

I've learned my lesson for the holidays and the future, when I see kids that still believe. That said, I don't advocate the cheesy "believing is seeing" from the Santa Clause franchise. We can't spend our whole lives thinking that a bunny hides Easter eggs in the spring time or that fairies have quarters for teeth. But we can spend a part of our lives nurturing that belief; its short lifetime doesn't make its existence less important.

Happy Christmas. Don't fear the Boogeyman.  

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Banned Books Week: Children Sacrifices in the Hunger Games


Every year during Banned Books week,we free-spirited authors call out parents and narrow-minded authorities for challenging controversial books. Some of these adults have petitioned to remove The Hunger Games from their school districts, condemning the R-rated violence in the books that barely made it into the movies with a PG-13 label. In 2011, according to the American Library Association, the charges against the book are as follows:  "anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.Other bloggers have pointed out that the loyal Katniss is the last person to represent anti-family, that there are ethnic differences in the books and movies and the books actually speak against violence; but the charges of being "occult/satanic" interest me since the last book series that was called satanic was Harry Potter. As we Harry Potter fans know, no one can get their hands on the Potions ingredients or the wands needed to cast spells from the books, and Harry certainly doesn't worship the devil or sanction prejudice. 

To make things different from typical attacks on censorship, since I highly respect my mother and she would dislike the books, and since I can't find any articles that explain the charges of occultism, I'm going to look at the parents' point of view to figure out why they see the Hunger Games as satanic before breaking down their argument into manageable bits. 

There is No God in Panem

When I was Googling articles to use for reference points, the My Hunger Games website mentioned that there's no religion in any of the districts, no God or vengeful deity save the chance that one district's champion will win. President Snow even mentions in the movies that the Games only provide hope and nothing more for the Districts, to keep them from rebelling. Katniss prays to her mentor Haymitch for support in the arena rather than an omniscient and omnipotent God; no spirituality can save her from the aftereffects of war. Children may find the idea of being alone with their minds troubling in a dark fictional novel where parents can go into depression and former friends get their tongues cut out. Katniss later becomes a Christ-like war figure for the rebellion and a symbol of hope against her will; no God guides her into making the right decisions.

Suzanne Collins's choice to not incorporate religion was a practical one because religion remains a hot button in mainstream literature. If there is even a revised version of Christianity in science fiction, like for Ted Sturgeon or Madeline L'Engle, people will complain. Most dystopic or bad future novels for that reason do not contain an ounce of Christianity or Buddhism; bad futures often show dependence on science and reason, as if the Age of Enlightenment reawakened with the creation of flying hovercrafts and fiery dresses.

People Would Pay to See Children Die


The other satanic implication seems to be that people in the Capitol enjoy watching 24 children fight to the death, sacrificing them for viewers' pleasure. Indeed, the dystopia reeks of a return to primal instinct and wealthy mob tyranny. Katniss has to listen to her Stylists and dress as they say; she's lucky that her Stylist doesn't have her parade naked in coal dust for the chariot ride and the wealthier Districts groom their children as charismatic killers. The victims cannot complain because if they complain then they get no sponsors and thus no food or medicine that can help them live one more day in the Arena. Parents could have been insulted by the implication that an affluent, decent-minded crowd would cheer to see real deaths, given that most ordinary people like to watch reality TV and fall for tragic love stories. The line between reality TV and reality cruelty becomes dreadfully thin in real life; the Hunger Games slashes that line into mediocre ribbons.

To add insult to injury regarding humanity's lack of values, the sacrifice of children becomes a running theme even with the rebellion; District Thirteen --SPOILERS-- also calls for the death of children to pay for the many deaths broadcast on the screen. The call for violence is thus implicit in human nature and only vehement protest can stop it. Parents could be concerned that Suzanne Collins broadcasts the lack of hope for humanity, that any of us in the affluent US would become one of a bloodthirsty mob. We want to believe that we are good people, and knowing that we're wired for violence could be a problem when trying to instill values in our children.  

Here is the reality check: we live in a world where children in Uganda are brainwashed into becoming killing machines and intellectual teenagers become terrorists. In America teenagers videotape public beatings and post them on YouTube just to get top votes. An offensive video two weeks ago led to the deaths of innocent American ambassadors. We can pretend that we are peace-loving rational creatures, but there will always be an irrational call for the mob's tyranny and to lay destruction in the streets. Suzanne Collins merely showed humanity at its potential worst, where the mob manages the money and laughs at the innocent or not-so innocent children's plights. 

Our generation is lucky that lynch mobs are condemned and that we push for peace rather than war in modern times. Just because humanity has blood thirst does not mean that we can rise above war and harsh reality; Katniss herself manages to end the cycle of violence with one well-placed arrow. She comments on the sordid state of affairs in Book Three, how war and battles always call for unnecessary and devastating bloodshed where everyone suffers. We have the choice to avoid the call for violence, and to promote peace; the 1960s war protests happened for a reason, as do shows like Sesame Street where people learn to get along. As long as  we continue to fight ourselves, no matter how hard the battle becomes, we can remain peaceful, good people. We can learn when the time comes for change and rebellion and when to question authority, like Katniss; to know evil, however, we have to read about it. The Hunger Games does not promote child sacrifices or the lack of God; it shows the prices of accepting a world with those aspects.  I will never cheer at seeing real children die on television, and I will accept hope from any spiritual source. 

What do you think? Post your comments below, and I will give the person with the most informative and organized response one of my original comic strips; the comic in question is this one about free speech. Can't wait to hear what you say!


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Novelizations: Why a Book Is Not a Disney Movie

A few weeks ago I noticed a new display in Barnes and Noble. It may as well have screamed Brave: The Adaptation, featuring not one, not two, but SIX different versions of Brave in book form in front of the usual children's books. One even included a watercoloring set for illustrating the pictures beautifully.

The display first inspired irritation and then fury in me. How dare they release a book adaptation of a Pixar film that hadn't even been released in theaters? Hadn't they heard of spoilers, or why spoilers were given that particular name? Did they WANT kids to skip out on the movie?

Then another thought occurred to me, and I started reading the different books. One was a "junior novelization" told from Princess Merida's point of view as she went through the movie, reading like a teenage fantasy novel. I tried, but I couldn't "see" the witch and her house of wood carvings. Another was a miniature encyclopedia, like an Eyewitness book of Brave's world. Yet they had no background music, voice acting, or visual movement; the book thus felt incomplete. It would be like trying to watch How to Train Your Dragon on mute, without hearing Jay Baruchel's sarcasm or John Powell's Oscar-nominated soundtrack.

That same week I was reading The Lion King, the picture book we have at home, with my younger brother as well as watching the movie five days in a row to prepare him for the stage play. Even though the picture book had dialogue ripped from the movie, reading it wasn't the same as running with Simba and Nala as they sang Elton John's entertaining songs. The words didn't have life or vigor, the reason why we watch the movie and sing along. Nor does this travesty happen to the Lion King, or even Disney exclusively; it happens with any picture book or novelization of an animated movie. Live action can get away with novelizations because we can see real people in the story, not cartoon ones.

One critical complaint of movies, especially animated movies, is that is deprives viewers of imagination, unless you're watching the original Fantasia. When a person goes to see a movie, there are few visual blanks to fill in because the movie provides visuals and sound, which appeal to our strongest senses.

Is that a bad thing?

We don't go to a movie to exercise our brains. We go to a movie to have fun, escape from our problems for two hours, and get immersed in someone else's life. Sometimes a book can't cut it because regular books don't have memorable soundtracks or sarcastic voice actors, even when you're listening to audio. A movie builds a new world for us to jump into.

I still read books, but I don't think I could reread Brave without seeing the movie and hearing the bagpipes firsthand. I won't be able to judge Merida as harshly for making a foolish wish instead of showing her mother why she shouldn't get married to a bore. Now that I've read the books, I'm even more excited and realize why the novelization were released two weeks in before the big premiere.

Pixar wants us to watch the movie, even it has princesses and curses and a controversy with Brenda Chapman. By teaming up with Barnes and Noble, they have succeeded beautifully.

Brave: The Junior Novelization. N.d. Photograph. Target. Web. .

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How to Regain Your Compassion

This semester I made the best decision possible: taking Literature of the Holocaust. I requested a spot because I needed a Modern Lit requirement for my major, and my adviser recommend the teacher. As a teenager I become highly interested in the Holocaust, only to abandon it after learning in 9th grade how the Nazis mistreated Jews and there was nothing the United States could do. Fighting prejudice and injustice seemed much harder when certain stereotypes are ingrained in your psyche, and when genocides continue to occur around the world. We only learned one thing in World Civilization when covering the Holocaust: "Never again." We were then showed why "never again" becomes a difficult motto in the face of Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and the Native Americans. 

That perspective changed when our teacher turned off the lights for one class, rolled down the screen projector, and showed us America and the Holocaust. We learned to our shock that the US DID know about the Holocaust in its early stages, could have saved six thousand Jews just by granting them visas, and ignored the problem until Jews working for the government alerted the President, getting fired for their trouble. Even worse, the government bureaucrat who stopped most of the visas from getting delivered never got punished. Breckenridge Long retired to a ranch and rode horses for the rest of his life. He never admitted his mistake, even when denying Jewish orphans an American sanctuary.

Our teacher then balanced this injustice with All But My Life, a memoir by a Holocaust survivor who has font memories of the US soldiers, even marrying the one who rescued her and ten other girls from an abandoned camp. Gerda Weisman Klein maintained an optimistic determination to survive, since surviving a death camp "was the greatest revenge". Her optimism helped the class brace itself for Night, a much more harrowing and traumatizing read, as well as Tzili, a fictional account of a mentally-delayed girl avoiding the death camps but still suffering when the Holocaust hits close to home.

Holocaust Literature didn't change my life, but it changed my perspective on the individual's power. If we had stopped Hitler when he invaded the Rhine lands, 5 million lives would have been spared. If Breckenridge Long had let go of his Anti-Semitism, then we may have had less refugees crowding the European ports, waiting for Nazi soldiers to drag them onto camps. If Eli Wiesel had listened to the nurse wanting to escort him to safety, he could have avoided Auschwitz.

The novels we read focused on the individual's power by proxy, since they were novels: Tzili, The ShawlWartime Lies, and The Plot Against America. Tzili through her quiet, persistent search for a new home invites compassion for every individual, no matter what their position in life; Wartime Lies explores what a false identity can do to a child's psyche as he hides from war as well as his courageous aunt; and The Plot Against America showed the growth of the author's fictional counterpart in a much more hostile America, with a Nazi-sympathizer as the president and the Jews slowly losing political power.Our teacher combined traditional English teaching to emphasize how the Holocaust stripped the individual of an identity and basic human rights, whether or not someone encountered the horrors of the camp.

I learned how to care for people again in this class, through my love of books and dormant righteous fury. I found what I could do: obtain an internship talking with a Holocaust survivor, write a comic expressing my conflicted feelings, and find more books on the subject.

Will I march in Poland, facing a hail of stones and seeing the horrid barracks? Probably not, unless for research. Will I write a comic that explains an appropriate punishment for Breckenridge Long? Probably, if I do enough research about the time period. Will I remember that every person who suffers is an individual, though? Yes I will. I will remember the voices of real and fictional survivors, those who told us to look at the Holocaust in a new way. We prove Hitler wrong when we see them as people, not as potential hair suppliers or cattle to be herded in trains. Let's keep doing so, even if there are no more Jews in Europe. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Remembering to Be a Kid Again

The Lion King is playing in Miami.; we went to see the show on Sunday, 1 PM "matinee" as my mother and older brother insisted that they were called. We crammed into our black Lexus, bickered as my mother shouted at my older brother to mind the stop lights and speed limits, and arrived ten minutes before the show started. I blew-dry my hair, an unusual occurrence, and tamed it with curlers. This experiment allowed me to wear my hair down for a couple of hours, before it puffed into fuzzy strands of Indian frizz. 

Our family does not normally arrive to events on time, so we prepared. An hour before our planned departure, my mother bade me to chop the lunch vegetables and cook while I showered and the boys (older and younger brother) went biking. The shower took longer than usual due to excessive hair scrubbing, blow-drying and make-up. Hair curlers have a life of their own if you don't pin them in properly; also, do not attempt to wrap them in towels because they prefer to breathe if they have to be wrapped in locks. 

Although the musical was fantastic, such events are only wonderful when you have people to share them with. My mother had instructed me to educate my younger brother about The Lion King for a week, watching the DVD every day with him. This wasn't a bad education, but I was crammed full of Lion King information that my younger brother did not appreciate. He preferred to lie back on the couch, let his eyes waver and close, and listen to Elton John's fantastic songwriting. I needed someone else as a student.

Next to me was a mother and her young daughter. The mother and I talked about The Lion King being Disney's best movie, a result of a two-year journey to Africa and Disney executives coming up with a great idea for a film project. Then the lights dimmed and Rafiki sang "THERE COMES A LION," starting the show. No one can resist singing along to Act One, where the beloved Disney songs come to life. We also can't resist screaming at Simba to run when the wildebeests threaten to trample him, nor gasping when he dangles from a tree branch at a precarious height; I was terrified that the safety wire would snap at any moment.

The young daughter, who later emphasized that her name was "Genevieve!" kept confusing Mufasa with Scar and didn't know what the hyenas were, so I whispered answers in the dark. After intermission she offered me an Oreo, which I refused politely, and kept asking me what happened next. It was a good crash course in brief communication, such as saying "Fight" when the hyenas and lions battled for Pride Rock. Having listened to the musical soundtrack and seen the movie five times in a row that week, I happily complied even though my family would tease about it in the car. Genevieve was full of life, excitement, and curiosity; she reminded me of what I once was before legal adulthood and adult responsibilities set in. 

When you watch a musical like The Lion King, you need a kid to share it with, a kid who has no idea what's going on but wants to jump in and sing "I Can't Wait to Be King" with the cast. You need someone who believes that they control their destiny, that the story they see on stage can happen in real life, and that they will remember who they are. Dwayne Wade had his five-year old son and his son's thirty best friends to entertain that same Sunday (go Heat, we are in FINALS). 

I know I'll never see Genevieve again, but she reminds me of the kids out there who want to grab a story in their hands and devour it without the need of dessert forks. She's motivated me to learn how to write for those children, to remember the faith that kids can succeed even when adults hinder or protect them. When my younger brother matures, I hope he can keep reminding me.

Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union with Lion King cast. Digital image. Miami Web. 30 May 2012. .

Lion King Photo 2. Digital image. Adrienne Arsht Center. Web. 30 May 2012. .

Rafiki singing for the lion king. Digital image. Adrienne Arsht Center. Web. 30 May 2012. .

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Remembering Robert Sherman: Recapturing A Legend in a Bottle

“And when [my grandfather] died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

These words from a work of fiction can easily apply to Robert Sherman, one of Disney's best and most beloved composers. He and his brother Richard Sherman worked together to write music for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Charlotte's Web (an animated version from the 1980s), and Winnie the Pooh.

While Howard Ashman (RIP, beloved songwriter) and Alan Menken (Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tangled) defined Disney adventure with their music, the Sherman brothers crafted secure worlds with their bouncy melodies. Even a scary song like "Heffalumps and Woozles" was packed with the safety of waking up from a bizarre, not terrifying nightmare. I laugh at elephant bees and bears stuck in cannons, even while admitting my terror of them.

The Sherman Brothers maintained that sensibility when working on other films. The 1980s version of Charlotte's Web, for example, stuck with me of the music; we jumped from bouncy fair revues to lazy, luxurious lullabies. Although my brother complains about the film's stiff animation, I remember it fondly because of the music. The movie starts with a gentle love song between a girl and her pet, which gives us a melody for the soundtrack to play with in humorous and sad moments. Some of the somber lullabies contradict with this melody, building up to Charlotte's death as a massive, heartbreaking reprise after Wilbur's bronze medal is celebrated. Despite her death, however, we take security in Wilbur's survival and his determination to become Charlotte's memory immortal.

The Jungle Book has that same sense of security, even in twisted ways. We have Kaa's villain song, "Trust in Me," in which giant snake Kaa plays with a hypnotized Mowgli before planning to devour him. Yet the rhythm is soothing while the lyrics ring creepily in our mind, almost placing us in the same hypnotic state. The Sherman brothers enjoyed messing with us, although they would soon stick to their sweet security once we hit the twenty-first century. Small wonder that we remember The Jungle Book despite it's weaknesses compared to Disney's other movies.

That said, the Sherman Brothers contributed more songs to the Disney company and other movies than I can count; I will try listening to all of them, to think about how they remain reassuring no matter what the circumstances. You can't stop growing up, but you can still love the songs that celebrate London and sweets with holes in them.

RIP Robert Sherman; you gave us a warm and fuzzy childhood.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Up: Why Adventure Can Remain Elusive

       Up remains one of Pixar's most unique movies. After demonstrating human depths in The Incredibles and Ratatouille, the company decided to take a break from serious stories and decided to have fun. They took a challenge in using a grumpy old man as their protagonist, but the gamble paid off.

        Unlike the last post, which covered Theme and Concept, we're going to look at Up's main theme: adventure. Pixar keeps the theme as overt as possible, using the word adventure as a recurring motif. Charles Muntz, the mysterious explorer introduced as Carl's inspiration, even names his ship The Spirit of Adventure, and we get to see why when Carl and Wilderness Scout Russel meet him. 

        As mentioned in my previous blog post, Pixar makes sure that their themes have balance. In the case of Up, the movie emphasizes that adventure can be crazy and exciting, but you can't let it get to your head. I will explore the theme's light and dark sides.

Defining Adventure

      Adventure becomes Carl's liberation when the explorer has something to lose. The movie starts with explaining how Carl and Elliot are a determined, happy couple. We see him and Elliot struggle with a smile to make ends meet so they can visit Paradise Falls and sympathize with their constant failure; the tears come when Elliot dies before she can make the trip, and Carl feels guilty for not keeping his promise to her. As a last straw, when Carl is forced to move to a nursing home after Elliot dies, he doesn't take the news lying down.  The audience thus cheers when he opens up the millions of balloons that lift his house off the ground and away from the nursing home doctors. Carl's decision liberates him from a mundane, unfair life and gives him a chance of redeeming his promise to Elliot.

        Carl relearns from Russel, an Asian boy who ends up on the flying house by accident, that you only need people you care about to have an adventure. Pixar wants us to view Russel as an annoying, determined, and naive Wilderness Scout who has never been outdoors; they hint at hidden depths, however, when he steers Carl's house through a storm and mentions that his dad lives with another woman. The real sadness hits when he says he used to eat ice-cream with his dad and count cars: "I know it sounds boring, but I remember the boring parts the most." The viewer flashes back to Elliot and Carl's cozy happiness at their more mundane moments and realizes what Carl has been missing.

       Carl's living contrast and representation of adventure's darker side is Charles Muntz, now aged and obsessed with capturing an exotic bird named Kevin. Guilt motivates Carl; pride motivates the former explorer. Also, instead of attempting to live in normal society, Muntz isolates himself in the jungle until he brings back Kevin; he has lost any semblance of compassion or morality. The film hints at this when Muntz displays helmets from people he has killed, increases the tension when Muntz captures Kevin and leaves her babies to starve, and has him cross the line by attempting to kill Russel. By the time Russel's life is threatened, the viewer feels no sympathy for Muntz and see how his obsession has corrupted him. While the dogs participate in mundane actions like playing fetch and asking for treats, their abilities to communicate, cook, and coordinate as a military group (some even fly planes) undermine any "boring" or memorable moments that Muntz might have had with a person.

      Despite seeing how adventure has corrupted Muntz's sanity and morality, as well as Russel's unintended influence, Carl only realizes that he needs people when he sees Elliot's scrapbook. The movie has Muntz threaten Carl's house to distract him from rescuing a wounded Kevin; Carl shows an understandable lack of compassion about losing Kevin, although we see his similarity to Muntz. He regains his sullen composure, shunting aside his guilt and focusing on getting the house to Paradise Falls. With that in mind, we would have had a very different movie if Carl had opened the scrapbook earlier as well as a very different adventure, because she shows that Carl was her greatest adventure. Her words and pictures remove Carl's guilt and allow him to move forward; he rescues Russel and Kevin from Muntz and befriends Dug, a golden retriever ostracized by Muntz's pack. By building a new family with Russel and Dug, as well as the other dogs once Muntz gets defeated, Carl proves himself as the better of the two men and the more deserving of a second chance.

Visual Motifs

       The movie's light tone supports its positive view of adventure; unlike Wall-E's dark palette, or Ratatouille's alternating layers of moody color, Up uses vibrant colors even during the film's most serious moments. The sad beginning has soft pastels that give way to emotional piano music, while Carl's initial takeoff emerges in a triumph of shiny red and blue balloons. Pixar wants it viewers to go on a crazy trip, but not to lose sight of the people they care about; they emphasize that with South America's gorgeous, dangerous landscape and the clean atmosphere of America's suburbs.

      The Spirit of Adventure airship represents the theme's ambiguity during the film. Much like how Carl's house is just a house, the airship is just an airship; it serves to transport the owner and house him safely. Muntz and Carl make the ship symbolic; Muntz uses the ship for both benevolent and nightmarish purposes. It can feed a crew of dogs or cage an exotic bird. The ship also tosses and turns during Carl's climactic confrontation with Muntz, emphasizing how it could be used for good and evil. We finally see this when Muntz gets tangled with drifting balloons and the house floats down (on Paradise Falls, no less): Carl now uses the airship as his home, and the dogs become his pets. He remembers his lessons learned with Russel and Elliot's scrapbook, however; he uses the ship only to spend time with the dogs and Russel so they remember the good times. Carl can find adventure anywhere, and he does so thoroughly.

Closing Thoughts

     Although the viewer senses that Up is a complex movie, we enjoy its fun and empathetic nature far more. Toy Story 3 dealt with toy "retirement", Wall-E was a depressing look at our future, while Ratatouille asked if genius could flourish from the lowest levels; Up offers a thrilling and exciting adventure and second chances. Beneath the colorful exterior, however, lies the Pixar layers that we have come to love mingled with familiar humor. We get hope for our personal futures, and the promise that we can have adventures of our own with a peaceful conscience. No second of life is wasted, Pixar tells us, as long as we share it with someone.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cars 2- How Spies and Pixar Go Together

    This morning a friend and I did a Pixar double feature: we watched Up and Cars 2. In another post, I'll go through Up piece by piece and explain what writers can learn from the movie. For now, let us turn to writer John Lasseter's latest creative venture.

   Cars 2 ups the stakes from the first movie by introducing the World Gran Prix, an international race that promotes Allinol, and alternative fuel. Racecar Lightning McQueen joins the race and brings his best friend Tow Mater for the trip; they soon find out that unlikely friendships are more complicated than they appear.

   The movie also introduces a mob of "lemon" cars that sabotage the race and Allinol's reputation. Fighting the mob are British spies Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell; they recruit Mater after mistaking him for an American spy. They have to stop the lemon car mob from killing Lightning McQueen before the races' conclusion in Britain.

   I will analyze the movie by talking about the movie's concept and themes, and how they play out. I am going to talk about the plot in detail, so please do not read if you do not appreciate spoilers.


           John Lasseter wants to introduce two key concepts during his newest film: spies investigating an oil conspiracy and the regular Cars cast learning to get along. The two concepts have distance that needs bridging and balance, given how far apart they can be on the genre spectrum. Brad Bird previously tackled superheroes in The Incredibles, but he was careful to mix in plenty of humor with the movie's real dangers; when people died in, they usually died in an explosion or off-screen. Lasseter has to recreate that same distance from reality without retreading on Bird's territory.   

           Balance is the first issue; Pixar needs to reconcile the harsh nature of mob conspiracies with the Cars world that we've become familiar with. The company has learned from Wall-E to present a colorful world with hope of getting better, at least in terms of contemporary problems. Cars 2 in this case attacks the idea of alternative fuels and organized crime and shows both being handled with hope.                             
                 Pixar also can't seriously injure Mater, McQueen, or the British spies; they only kill two minor characters to establish the movie's stakes. The villains even implement a classic death trap when they finally get their hands on Mater, defusing the fear that Mater will die for real. Lasseter then raises the tension by revealing that Mater was allowed to escape the trap and has a bomb strapped to his air filter. Right after that reveal, however, humor is implemented into a serious car chase and Mater's friends successfully take down the lemon mob; the bomb never even gets a chance to explode, and the viewer can breathe easily. The bomb is also not treated the way it would be treated in real life; it's mostly seen as an obstacle, not a life-threatening terrorist situation until Mater talks to the Queen of England.

             One may argue that Pixar fails to temper the scary stuff in Cars 2, given the number of parents and younger kids who did not appreciate car spies being tortured to death or using guns. Critics also did not appreciate Mater being the film's main character, although he goes through more character development than McQueen. On the other hand, older audiences have appreciated the movie and the James Bond twang within the soundtrack; the movie may have fared better with a PG rating and a marketing slant at teenagers and college students, who would appreciate it.              
            Bridging is the second important issue; the viewer needs to believe that the Cars world can have colorful characters like Mater and dangerous ones like the lemon mob. Lasseter manages to introduce exciting spies by first having a short but exciting action sequence in which British Agent Finn McMissile infiltrates a corrupt oil rig and fakes his death. McMissile's explosive gadgets and brutal tactics draw the viewer in; no viewer can resist a movie with gorgeous explosions. Once the tension is set, we switch to Radiator Springs, where Mater plays some pranks on McQueen and learns hilariously to respect his best friend's boundaries. Lasseter wastes no time in connecting McQueen and Mater to McMissile's missions, using the World Grand Prix as a bridge.

            Belief is the final issue; the viewer needs to believe that Mater can appear as an American spy, and that the British agents made an honest mistake. Lasseter finds a creative solution: he has the real American agent attach his information to an oblivious Mater, who then impresses the British agents with his knowledge of old cars. That knowledge helps them find a necessary informant and the lemon mob's connection to the World Grand Prix, and also saves Mater's life when the car bomb is strapped to him. Mater in this case cannot be stupid or arrogant, only tactless; he keeps trying to tell the agents that he's only a tow truck, and that he doesn't want to mess up their mission.        


            The original Cars movie focused on a racecar learning to appreciate people, not metal trophies. He takes that lesson to heart in the sequel with his best friend Mater when trying to work out their unlikely friendship after several months spent in the World Grand Prix. Even if you appreciate people, however, you also have to be patient with their more annoying characteristics. Lightning McQueen has to learn that the hard way with Mater, who has the tact of well . . . an ignorant tow truck. Mater in turn realizes that other cars, including McQueen, think he's an idiot and laugh at him; he tries to change himself; when the change doesn't work out, he leaves so that McQueen has a better chance at winning. Any person in a similar situation would sympathize with Mater, who tries so hard to help.
           Friendship has to go two ways, always, Pixar reminds us; that phrase becomes the movie's main theme and visual motif. We first see it when McQueen doesn't like Mater's idea of a good time in Radiator Springs, has the tact not to say so, and tries to have a quiet dinner with his girlfriend; Mater doesn't get it and poses as McQueen's waiter at the dinner. This gets reinforced later when Mater keeps embarrassing himself in Japan and in from of McQueen's race car friends and when he messes up McQueen's racing in Japan. The final glimpse of the visual motif occurs in London, when McQueen chases a bomb-strapped Mater and refuses to let him disappear into the British traffic. Even when Mater uses rockets to propel himself away, McQueen hangs on; although the action further endangers McQueen, it shows that he won't give up on Mater the way he had previously in the movie.                  
           Contrasting Mater and McQueen's disintegration friendship is McQueen's rivalry with Francesco Bernoulli, an Italian racecar; Francesco constantly insults McQueen but shows respect and even sympathy for the latter. McQueen soon develops a similar banter and respect for Francesco, recognizing the other car's desire for an honest race and that one should hold on to potential friends. At the same time, becoming friendly rivals with Francesco does not interfere with staying Mater's best friend and in fact helps it thrive.

           Becoming part of a spy mission helps Mater break from his borderline obsessive friendship with McQueen because he meets McMissile and Holly Shiftwell, his "girlfriend"; they give him another world to explore and interact with. He gets his self-confidence back when providing information about car parts, only to lose it when McMissile compliments him on appearing like a fool. Mater finally shows confidence when McQueen encourage him to act on his belief that Miles Axelrod, creator of Allinol and the Grand Prix is the head of the lemon mob. Even though they don't believe him, the British agents' obvious questions help Mater solidify his accusation to them and the audience because he can address any lingering doubts. Mater even becomes an honorary British knight and spy, although he turns down the offer to go on another mission (WHY? We need a Cars 3) in favor of staying in Radiator Springs.

           Lessons to be Learned
          1. When you are writing with different concepts, figure out how your characters will bring them together For that, you need to figure out your characters' motivations and roles in the story and how they will change thanks to the plot. Lasseter built the Cars world to inhabit multiple genres and characters; similarly, you should also built your fictional world to inhabit diversity.

          2. Themes often have two sides to them and can be used to establish visual motifs; exploit these motifs in as many ways possible. Use contrasting characters, increasingly intense conflict scenes, and explosions. Everything is better with explosions

         3. Use humor to defuse situations that may become too terrifying, depending on your audience.
          See what you can do with these lessons, if you can implement them into your writing. See if Pixar can be channeled!

               Image cited
     Lasseter, John, and Brad Lewis. Cars 2. Digital image. IMDB. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. .