Week III – Getting Back To Normal – SEASON PREMIERE WEEK (#3)

16862_bannerREPUBLIC OF DOYLE – Season Premiere

Season 6, Episode 1 (Dirty Deeds)

Like the last book of a series, the last season of a television show is a chance to up the storytelling level.  There is no chance of cancellation, no chance of rejection, no need to fear for the future.  One has the freedom to do whatever one wants with the plot and characters to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The last season of Republic of Doyle has thus been able to depart slightly from its usual formula and tell a longer, interconnected story (albeit in a shorter span of time) to bring the show to an end.  The premiere episode broke the tradition of skipping significantly forward in time between seasons (except for between the first and second season) and picked up only three weeks after the finale.  Granted, that is still longer than immediately following – we skip the discovery of the missing money, Leslie’s immediate treatment in hospital, Jake’s bail hearing, and all of the characters of the ensemble cast catching up to each other.  Clearly, despite the drama involved, this is actually a good thing!  We don’t need to see any of that when a few lines of explanation delivered in context will bring us up to speed on what we’ve missed.  After all, we watch the show for the hijinks, not for screaming matches.

Within minutes, the story has moved on to Jake’s adventures in the jail, surrounded by inmates whom he caught, and trying to solve a new mystery while keeping the ongoing storyline moving along.  For being a season premiere, it was actually quite watchable as a standalone episode.  The loss of their savings means that the Doyles can’t afford Jake’s bail money, so they are scrounging around while comatose Leslie prevents them from finding further evidence to prove Jake’s innocence.  By the end of the episode, Jake is still in prison, the Doyles still have no money and a bad reputation, and Leslie has only just woken up.  Whether or not she even remembers what happened remains to be seen, although it appears that Jake gets out of prison by the end of next week’s episode (judging from the promo).

However, since this is the last season, there is less of a need to get back to the status quo.  This is a race to the finish with only nine more hours left to go.

I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

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Season 4, Episode 3 (Rocky Road)

Such a thing as the status quo is non-existent in this show.  The closest that we come is finally meeting this half-season’s main villain: the Snow Queen, who may or may not be Elsa’s aunt.  She believes (or leads us to think that she believes) that eventually, non-magical individuals will turn to hating magical individuals and call them monsters.  Her motivations in Storybrooke are less clear, but she chooses innocent Marian as her sacrificial lamb: by attacking her with a poisoned ice cream cone, she easily shifts the suspicion away from her and points it at either Elsa or Regina.  Since the ice magic isn’t really Regina’s style, suspicion around her is cleared.  Instead, she chooses to help save Marian rather than letting her die and making Robin available again.  This proves what Henry has always known about his adoptive mother (and what Snow White strongly believed about her): she is a very caring and loving person who easily gets hurt and who could be wonderfully heroic if she makes the choice to do so.  She wants to help Marian because the woman is a) suffering needlessly for something she didn’t do, and b) incredibly important to Robin and Roland.  She knows what it is like to lose a mother, after all, even if that was the best thing for her.  For her good deeds, unfortunately, all she gets back is the satisfaction of knowing that Robin has fallen in love with her but is going to remain faithful to his wife.  Were it not for Henry’s support in her newfound mission to change her fate (is her middle name Merida?), she might have melted into a puddle of wax.  For his part, it was incredibly trusting of Robin to admit to Regina that he no longer really loved Marian – did he have a smidgeon of hope that she would let Marian die and then make his decision for him?

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In other news, Anna is still missing, Emma decides to let Hook into her life (even if it means he might die and she would be hurt), Hook successfully blackmails Rumplestiltskin, Jiminy Cricket schools Snow White on her being too attached to her son (in my opinion, she really should invest in a sling or backpack carrier if she insists on carrying him everywhere), Grumpy is still mad at Elsa for freezing his truck when he was about to run her over, and Elsa does not remember the Snow Queen.

Once-Upon-a-Time-Rocky-Road-RecapReview-650x433I guess in many ways, this episode is indeed back to the status quo.  We await next week’s new developments!

2013-4 Murdoch Mysteries Season7 castMURDOCH MYSTERIES

Season 8, Episode 2 (On the Waterfront – Part II)

With On the Waterfront – Part II, the mystery of the dockside murders is brought to a conclusion and we can indeed come back to the status quo, albeit a little shaken.  Brackenreid’s fate is sealed, as much as his replacement was likeable.  I do hope that they keep Det. Slorack on the back burner as a guest character in the future.  If he had indeed become the new inspector permanently, it would have changed the dynamic of the show but ultimately, I think audiences would have warmed up to him.  He is lighthearted whereas Brackenreid is tough and cynical.  For the purpose of the show, someone needs to be the darker character – so I am happy that Brackenreid will be back in office.

Murdoch_Mysteries_S08E02_2014-10-13Drs. Ogden and Grace avoid extensive jail largely through connections, including the first female lawyer in the British Empire, and Lesley Garland’s horrible plot against his former sister-in-law and Det. Murdoch comes back to haunt him.  The doctors and a few remaining suffragettes vow to continue on fighting for women’s rights, perhaps leading to an ongoing side-plot.  I would love to see a flashforward of them at the ballot box in 1917!  For us in the present, we know that women did indeed receive the right to vote only a few years later, but while they in 1901 sensed that women’s suffrage was achievable, they had no idea how soon it would be.  Furthermore, it was a hard-won fight and while the opinions of many men in that era seems laughable in 2014, in reality, it was not funny at all.  A woman voting and having political rights (let alone run for office) was as offensive to tradition and order as homosexuals being able to get married.  Science, religion, social order, government, tradition…all of these supported that women should not be able to vote.  That a woman currently is Premier of Ontario, working the very offices depicted in the protests in last week’s episode, and that a woman is currently one of the top three contenders for the office of Mayor of Toronto, is only because of a lot of campaigning along with a world war or two.  That campaigning was necessary to change the minds of society, women as well as men.

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Season 7, Episode 3 (Clear and Present Danger)

Last week’s episode brought back Castle’s status quo, but this week was the first episode in which we felt truly at home.  Here was a murder with a quirky, possibly supernatural explanation, and plenty of time for Castle and Beckett to interact and flirt with each other.  Everyone seemed lighthearted and jolly.  It was a fun adventure that the viewers have come to expect after six years.

The long and the short of the plot is that a man is killed by a seemingly invisible force.  The killer is brought to justice thanks to Castle and Beckett getting their groove back (sorry, mind melds), thinking quickly alike to catch an otherwise un-catchable murderer.  We had pool hustling, demonic spiritualism, online gaming, science, and government conspiracies all rolled into one logical story.  It was colourful and enjoyable, if somewhat unbelievable.

Moreover, I really don’t want to believe that it is technologically possible to render a person completely invisible.  Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak should remain something of fantasy, or else it should remain a big, bulky, awkward blanket, not a suit or anything that would make it easy for a concealed person to move.  Imagine what criminals could get away with!  The fact that someone could be entirely invisible would indeed make them feel powerful and outside the law, no different than a firearm.  An invisible suit would be a weapon of a different kind.  One could alter data, rig elections, steal items (if they can make a suit, surely they can make an invisibility tote bag), and attack people both psychologically and physically.  Even the threat of being caught later would be little deterrence if the damage got done.

So despite being a hilarious episode, the underlying premise was terrifying.

Thank God for pots, pans, and fire extinguishers!

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Week II – Picking Up From Where We Left Off? – SEASON PREMIERE WEEK (#2)

2013-4 Murdoch Mysteries Season7 castMURDOCH MYSTERIES – Season Premiere

Season 8, Episode 1 (On the Waterfront)

There is something to be said for feigned normalcy, such as when one goes about one’s business at work while battling an illness or dealing with a significant life event…or in the case of a television show, starting off your premiere episode as though this is merely another installment of your police procedural.

The opening scenes of On the Waterfront are almost the same as they would be for any other episode of the series.  A seemingly random and unknown group of characters meet up and either one of two things happens: they discover a body or one of them is murdered.  In this case, it is the latter option as a nervous businessman is clobbered to death in front of a group of horrified hotel restaurant patrons, all of whom are untouched by the assailants.  The only difference is that we’re treated to a teaser scene first of a woman being quickly murdered – again, a random woman by a seemingly random thug in a random alley.  The two scenes do not appear connected, but any viewer of a police procedural can assume that a connection will be established at some point.

At the end of the previous season, Inspector Brackenreid was left in mortal peril.  Instead of going straight to the question of his survival or demise, we are presented with a new investigation and our other main protagonists going about their business…with a new police inspector.  Much to the viewers’ frustration, it is fifteen minutes into the hour before we find out whether Brackenreid survived the finale.  (Though the opening credits are a good clue, they can be misleading and occur right at the start of the program.) The rest of the episode proceeds with not only the murder investigations, but also an overarching plot about the police taking/maintaining control of the 1901 Toronto dockside and of Drs. Ogden and Grace joining the suffragette movement.  At the end of the episode, we discover that it is, in fact, On the Waterfront – Part I.  Any conclusions have to wait.  The premier episode thus feels like we are at once stepping back into a nice groove (this is the eighth season, after all) and also breaking into new dramatic territory.  It is a satisfying story that holds a lot of promise for future episodes.

BrLUxzXIIAAn7fNRather than go into spoiling the surprises (until next time, at least), I want to point out that I appreciate the storytelling device of keeping the audience waiting for resolution from the season finale cliffhanger.  Too often, writers fall into the pattern of picking up where they left off, wrecking the timelines of shows and also making it difficult to get audiences engaged beyond the first few minutes.  To use the example of the other shows that I track, Once Upon a Time has such a compressed timeline that even the “current” timeline is two years behind the real world, while Castle frequently has to figure out ways to get across summer jumps after resolving the cliffhangers, which basically puts the brakes on the story in the premiere.  Neither of these methods are bad – they work for their respective shows.  However, for those who are watching the premiere just to get resolution from the finale, there is little to keep them watching if the writing doesn’t throw a curveball at them.  (In the case of aforementioned shows, the plot does indeed offer viewers something else to chew on before resolving the cliffhangers, but not to the extent that this season of Murdoch Mysteries does.)

This episode could have started right away with the discovery of Brackenreid’s body and the immediate investigation into his attack.  They could have kept his health in critical condition for the entire hour as the rest of the cast worked to figure out who attacked him or prove their culpability.  Next week could have moved into the new season in earnest, or kept the investigation going.  But that is not the spirit of this show.  No matter what liberties Murdoch Mysteries takes, it is a detective show and strives to maintain lightheartedness amid the drama of the Edwardian era.  So true to form, we begin with new murders some months later, to match with the time that has passed since the finale, with the finale’s consequences still fresh in our characters’ memories, but faded enough into the past so as not to immediately disrupt routine.

But something is different about this episode – we are treated to a lot more character development and background.  After seven seasons, the show can explore not only its main cast, but also its supporting cast.  Some of the police officers, after all, have been around for seven years with little more than the occasional funny scene.  It is about time they got some more scenes.  Overall, this season is shaping up to be very exciting, thought-provoking, informative, and funny.

Murdoch Season 8

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Season 4, Episode 2 (White Out)

Last week’s premiere was as much about tying up loose ends as it was about setting up new plots.  This week’s episode, however, kicked off the new season’s plot in earnest.  Our main characters made contact with the new Frozen characters, Elsa’s motivation was revealed, and we caught a glimpse of the new season’s actual villain.  (Unsurprisingly, it is not Elsa.)

white-out-once-upon-a-timeAs far as how well-crafted this episode was, it stuck to one main plot with a small side plot involving Anna and David in the past.  It was the type of episode that actually could be watched on its own.  While Emma and Elsa got a chance to have centre-stage, they shared it with David – who in my opinion often gets overlooked on this show.  He is more than Prince Charming and it is always refreshing to see him without Snow White.  As the generic “good man”, it is easy to perceive David/Prince Charming as having few layers, especially compared to Rumpelstiltskin and Captain Hook (or even Robin Hood).  However, this episode shows him as a vulnerable young shepherd, trying to provide for his mother and survive to live another day.  We learn that his father was an alcoholic who tried his hardest to quit, but eventually succumbed to his addiction and left young David to be man of the house at six years old.  This, combined with the loss of his twin (although he was not conscious of this, but it has been proven that twins form bonds from before birth and that the loss of a twin, even at birth, can cause trauma in the survivor), could have set David on the path of villainy or of cowardice, but a chance encounter with Anna cemented his belief that he could be heroic and fight back against the hard-knocks in life.  Unfortunately, this episode did not go into much detail of just how far David could have gone the way of Hook or Rumpelstiltskin were it not for this encounter and it was left up to the viewer to discern this.  Thankfully, I found that this plot on its own was enjoyable.  David as an individual is just as exciting as Snow White as an individual, and while they are held up as the ideal married couple, it is refreshing to see them on their own.

Once-Upon-a-Time-4x02-White-Out-David-and-Anna-as-JoanSpeaking of on her own, Snow White had a very small part in this episode, but it was hilarious.  As a new mother, all she wants to do is sleep, but a power outage causes the townspeople to look to her for direction.  Since Regina has holed herself up in her house and absconded from the office of Mayor, they turn to Snow – whose kingdom they fought for and so who they rightly believe is their queen and leader.  Baby in tow, she finds herself trying to figure out the power plant as Grumpy, Granny, and several other dwarves badger her.  Finally, she screams at them that they are overwhelming her – which is cathartic to watch because we all have been in similar situations – and once they have left, she promptly figures out the problem.  It certainly doesn’t take a new baby to know that feeling.  Snow even tells them that she could sympathize with Regina turning evil because the people’s constant demands were so annoying.  The best line: “You have lived your entire lives without lightbulbs!  Go buy a flashlight!”  She certainly didn’t need her Prince Charming to defend her.

As for the actual main plot, which is Elsa freezing out the town in attempt to find her sister, it is a straight-forward story about Emma, David, and Hook discovering that Elsa really just wants to find her family and has little control over her powers.  Emma inadvertently gets stuck in an avalanche, but David and Elsa manage to save her.  By the end of the episode, Elsa, for the time being, has joined the Charming family on a quest to find Anna.  I enjoyed this story very much, but it was not very memorable.  It was merely a suspenseful way to open up this season’s plot.

Meanwhile, Henry refuses to be rejected by Regina and is rewarded for his efforts by her welcoming him home.  I presume that her rejection of him was more of a knee-jerk reaction on her part and likely stemmed from her not wanting to see anyone at all.  Even her mirror was not really all that helpful, seeing as he only reminded her of her evil past.  Regina probably thought that Henry would be happier with Emma and the Charmings while she herself wallowed in misery.  Not entirely a selfish move, but not entirely a nice one, either.  We don’t actually get to read what her note to him said, but I assume that she meant well.

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Season 7, Episode 2 (Montreal)

In considering how much mystery to give their viewers before really resolving last year’s finale, the writers of Castle decided to keep it going over multiple episodes.  Rather than be two parts, Montreal merely offers more clues and more questions.  It is a more traditional episode in that Castle and Beckett are back to solving a murder case completely unrelated to Castle’s disappearance.  It is comical, albeit comical in a manner more fraught with tension than usual. Castle is still not back to his old self and Beckett is still finding it hard to trust him.  In some ways, their relationship appears to have regressed a few years – their behaviour seems more like it was in the second or third season.  However, Castle seems more desperate and aloof than funny, and Beckett seems more frustrated than amusingly annoyed.  As Castle discovers more clues as to his disappearance, his demeanour improves – and consequently, so does Beckett’s.  Perhaps the writers intend to slowly bring their relationship back to where it was last year over the course of the next few episodes?  It is still highly uncomfortable to watch, but quite believable.  The portrayal of both Castle and Beckett dealing with the trauma of his disappearance with realistic, albeit usually couples are dealing with illness or job loss, not abduction.  Beckett has lost her Castle, and Castle has lost himself.

That said, I am still enjoying this turn that the writers decided to take this couple on.  They could have had them get married and then started off the season with them as a married couple investigating crimes (or have Castle disappear after their nuptials rather than before), but they chose to make a great change in their relationship dynamic instead.  They did not choose the marriage route, which (let’s face it) in TV land means that they would next be on the baby route.  They instead chose to portray something that happens in many relationships, albeit not usually in such a dramatic way: that of a profound shift or loss in identity that results in a loss of built-up trust.  Castle was abducted and lost his memory; usually, outside of television, a spouse falls ill, develops an addiction, loses their job, or suffers a great family tragedy.  While the afflicted spouse looks for meaning for what happened to them (much as Castle is trying to solve his abduction case) and to their spouse for solace, the other spouse feels robbed of the spouse that they had and lose their confidence in the afflicted spouse, even when the affliction (illness, job loss, death of family member) is not the afflicted spouse’s fault.  After all, while Castle can’t help what happened to him, a small part of Beckett still wants to be angry with him, which is all the more frustrating for her because he does not deserve it.  In this case, neither of them do.

That said, more cases together will definitely help repair their relationship.  I only hope that they involve more toy pianos!

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Week I – Television is Back in Session – SEASON PREMIERE WEEK (#1)

Both Once Upon a Time and Castle left off with stunning cliffhangers last year. Unsurprisingly, their season premieres picked up right where the last scene left off and kept the story going, moving seamlessly into new chapters.

All right, needless to say, SPOILER ALERT below.

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Season 4, Episode 1 (A Tale of Two Sisters)

Elsa has arrived from Arendelle via a magical urn that was held captive by Rumplestiltskin. Regina has been deprived of her “happy ending” with Robin Hood by the reappearance of Marian. Both are parallel characters who want to shut out the world.

Anna-Elsa-OUATThe characters from the Frozen universe have been written into the existing story as though they have always belonged there. Seeing Elsa, Anna, and their parents open the episode did not make me blink in the slightest. Kristoff and Sven were just as I had imagined them to be. That said, had I not seen Frozen, I might not have appreciated the characters quite the same way. The writers made sure to give subtle explanations as to who the characters were: the King and Queen of Arendelle very obviously wrote a note to “them”, revealed in the next scene to be Elsa and Anna whose parents were lost in a storm at sea. The two were obviously sisters, Anna was getting married, and Elsa was the Queen. Their next few scenes revealed that Anna’s groom was named Kristoff, he had a particularly odd friend named Sven (revealed to be a reindeer, but you would have to have seen the film to know that ahead of time), there was a menacing Prince Hans and his brothers who threatened the kingdom, and for some reason Anna had trolls for future in-laws. I admit, one could think that somehow Kristoff was a troll who had found himself on the fortunate end of a spell. That part wasn’t explained very well. Otherwise, the Arendelle storyline fit perfectly into the narrative. We are eventually going to learn how Elsa ended up in an urn in Rumpelstiltskin’s cupboard.

14Elsa is still looking for her sister, who ran off on a quest to the Enchanted Forest in the past. In the modern world, however, Elsa is entirely out of her element. Terrified, she turns things to ice at every turn. To throw Emma and Hook off of her trail, she creates a snowmonster to be her protector – which works very well until the monster gets in Regina’s way. Fire is always a very handy weapon!

Once-Upon-a-Time-Episode-4-01-A-Tale-Of-Two-Sisters-once-upon-a-time-37547617-3000-2000Meanwhile, speaking of being frozen from the world, we return to the world of our favourite Storybrooke characters immediately after the return of Marian. Understandably, Regina leaves the diner in humiliation. While Robin Hood is completely over Marian (or as much as one can be over the loss of a spouse) and in love with Regina, he feels duty-bound to honour his marriage vows.

It can be hard to remember when watching a show that is drawn out over weeks and months that often, very little time passes during an episode. In the real world, Regina would likely spend days wallowing at home with whisky and ice cream. Instead, she remembers that she does not take humiliation lightly and looks for ways to fix her problem.

However, she realises that she has no idea how to rid herself of Marian that does not involve being a monster. All of her strategies are those of a villain, and she does not want to be a villain anymore. In her heart, which isn’t frozen, she cares too much for Robin, Roland, Marian, and Henry to consider outright killing her rival. Going back in time isn’t really an option for her after all. In the end, she would rather save her loved ones from the snowmonster than let it crush Marian. Rather, she wants to go after the author of the book itself.

“Going after the writer of the book” is exactly what this show has been doing for the past three years. It has explored heroes and villains, tearing down archetypes and making them realistic and human. It has examined good and evil and how they are made; how a character can slide from one to the other and back again.

Regina is the type of character who would have a hard road to travel even in a non-fantasy setting: abusive childhood, forced marriage, adolescent trauma, bloodlust revenge, addiction (to magic in this case), and loss of loved ones. She has gone from seeing herself as the victim to seeing herself as the monster who needs to redeem herself constantly, but always the villain.

Understandably, she wants out of the cycle. Unfortunately, for that, she will need to reach out to others, not push them away.

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Season 7, Episode 1 (Driven)

As this year did not see the name of the show change to Beckett, I don’t think anyone was surprised to discover that Castle was not in the burning car wreck, nor was he inside it when it was crushed at the junkyard. That was a given. He had been kidnapped, that much was certain last year.

castle-is-gone-in-promo-for-season-7To cover the time between the aborted wedding in the spring and the start of this season in the late summer/early fall, Castle simply went missing for over two months. The investigation into his disappearance begins immediately, but upon discovering, through security camera footage, that Castle was indeed alive and apparently well, the urgency was called off. To all those but his nearest and dearest, it was decided that he had simply run off.

I took issue with this portrayal. Seeing Castle in the footage made Beckett (as well as Ryan and Esposito) furious! Now, I can believe that being a homicide cop can make one jaded about human nature, but I cannot believe that the first theory that you would have would be “he’s in on it, how dare he do that to us!” No, I think anyone would have the reaction of “Oh my God, he’s alive!” Cue the joyful and relieved exuberance. Yes, as time went on, Beckett would get angrier, but not to start.

castSurely, after all of the cases that they have worked together, she and her two closest colleagues would come up with many plausible (if remote) theories as to what had happened. Perhaps Castle was drugged? Working under duress? Both? Carted away to a remote holding cell after appearing in the footage? Yes, he appeared as cool as a cucumber, but that could have been because he had been assured that he would be returned to the Hamptons promptly. Frankly, I am disappointed in the writers for not giving these characters enough credit. We viewers have some understanding of human nature – and most of us are not jaded cops, either.

Nonetheless, Castle is found, but he cannot remember anything after the crash. Beckett (along with Martha and Alexis) believes him, but she cannot wholly trust him anymore. She needs her evidence, and so far, it is still lacking. She cannot bury her doubt that Castle is simply pretending and decided to run away to go camping.

The lack of Castle for the majority of this episode is just as noticeable to the viewers as it is for Beckett. We miss his banter, his theories, his easygoing nature, and his charming calm. Without him, the show is dark and Beckett alternates between being an empty shell and an explosive volcano. Ryan and Esposito are shorter with each other as well. This is not the show that viewers have come to love for six years. We want Castle to come back as much as Beckett does by the time the first commercial break hits.

Castle’s return ushers in a new dynamic, since Castle is still his usual self. We are relieved that he is back, but we want answers to what happened to him as much as Beckett does.

Only then can we have our show back!

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The Secret of NIMH (1982)

secretofnimhAnother hidden gem from the past, The Secret of NIMH is a non-Disney, Don Bluth animated film that is aimed for an all-ages audience despite starring talking animals. The Looking at the DVD cover, one would never know how dark the story (indeed, the colouring itself) is. Bluth threw in at least one obvious swear word, visible blood, violence, and obvious death scenes – but because it is animated and about animals, marketers want audiences to think it is for children.

In what is likely a first (and only) for an animated film, our heroine is a widowed single mother named…well, we don’t know exactly, but she goes by “Mrs. Jonathan Brisby”. Indeed, she only gets anywhere in the movie on her late husband’s name. When she introduces herself, nearly everyone she meets gasps and then treats her with utmost respect. Initially, she has no idea why. She just wants to save her children. One of her four children is sick and can’t travel, but her house is in the way of the farmer’s plough and needs to be moved. She is told to seek out the rats of NIMH.

Oh, and Mrs. Brisby is a mouse.  [In the Robert C. O'Brien's novel that this film is based on, she is called Mrs. "Frisby", but the Frisbee toy company refused to let Bluth use the name for the film.]

On her courage and faith alone, Mrs. Brisby manages to save her family. While the supernatural elements of the film are a bit over-the-top, they do provide a visual for the biblical theme of “faith can move mountains”. Mrs. Brisby, always thinking she was a little helpless mouse, almost singlehandedly gets her house moved at the last moment, and also saves the rats.

Upon further reflection on her name, I realised that she might not have actually had one prior to marrying Jonathan Brisby. Jonathan Brisby was a rather special and long-lived mouse who taught his ordinary mouse wife some of the skills that he had. Perhaps he chose his own name. In which case, his wife might have simply taken the name “Mrs. Jonathan Brisby” as her own. Their children have personal names, but we don’t see any other creatures’ children. Perhaps it is not customary for mice to take personal names, but giving his children names was Jonathan’s idea. Since his wife had no name, she took “Mrs. Jonathan” as her own. Even as she became the heroine of her own story, equalling or exceeding her late husband’s heroics, Mrs. Brisby did not claim any other name as her own. She was still Mrs. Jonathan Brisby.

While The Secret of NIMH contains strange supernatural elements and dubious scientific accuracy, it is nonetheless an important story. For one, the animals in question act like animals and the humans are not portrayed as villainous. (And for that matter, even the cat, considered a ferocious villain by the protagonist and her compatriots, is only an ordinary farm cat who hunts mice, rats, and birds – somewhat lazily, in fact.) Secondly, its underlying theme is that courage and faith can move mountains and being willing to sacrifice oneself for others is a worthwhile goal. Even the comic relief, a clumsy crow named Jeremy, demonstrates immense courage and faith to help others and eventually find a mate.

I can see why this movie would terrify young children. It needs to be one that they watch with their parents, but unfortunately, I bet a lot of parents left their children alone to watch it because they assumed it was just a film about cute talking animals. The parents thus missed out on a great movie and the children were terrified and thus missed out on the important message (as well as the fun).

Thankfully, I was introduced to this film and hope to keep watching it, kids or not.

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The Myth of the Missing Mom – Disney’s (and Pixar’s) Canon (1937-2013)

Disney cases (not mine)(Photo credit: Someone with a much more complete and organized Disney collection than me.)

It has been said that Walt Disney had issues with his mother. It has been said that writers could not adequately animate adult women. It has been said that fairy tales are inherently misogynistic. It has been said that if mothers were present in Disney movies, the heroes would not get much beyond the front door and never go on their adventure.

Regardless of the reason, it is almost universally acknowledged that in nearly all of the films in the Disney/Pixar animated canon, the hero’s mother is missing.

However, time and again, only a few movies were cited: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Bambi (1942), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). That’s only five of the more than fifty movies considered part of the Disney canon. Why only the above five?

I decided to test the theory of the missing mom on the entire list of the Disney Animated Canon (as per Wikipedia), as well as some associate films and the Pixar Animated Canon.

My conclusion? See the title of this post: the “missing mom” is a mere myth, perpetuated by a few movies that support it and disregarding the rest of the family.  At the most, it is a normal storytelling convention that is not very notable.

First of all, a lot of the Disney canon feature films that have no parental figures whatsoever. These films thus neither support nor detract from the myth. Rather, they simply point to there being no inherent conspiracy in Disney’s portrayal of women and families. Films in this category include: Fantasia (1942), Saludos Amigos (1943), The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun & Fancy Free (1947), The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad (1949), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Rescuers (1977), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Fantasia 2000 (1999), Home on the Range (2004), Bolt (2008), Winnie the Pooh (2011), and Wreck-It Ralph (2012), as well as Pixar’s Monsters Inc. (2001), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Cars 2 (2011), and Monsters University (2013). To this category, I might also add The Black Cauldron (1985), but I have not seen that one. In these films, parental characters may exist, but they are not the focal point of the story and they or their absence do not define the heroes in a significant way. As for the peripheral mother characters in these films, such as Kanga in Winnie the Pooh, they are generally portrayed positively and as being as present as mothers as they are needed.

I will admit that I may be mistaken about some of the films that I have placed in the above category, as I have a dim memory of some of them, have not seen some of the early ones, and have not seen some others (although The Black Cauldron is the only one for which I have not only not seen, but have had no peripheral knowledge of). However, out of 70 films that I analysed, 21 of them fall into this category – 15 of those in the Disney Canon proper. Therefore, my analysis will primarily concern the 49 films that remain.

Of the remaining films, several patterns emerged. To start, I will list some simple facts:

The number of films featuring dead mothers, including those that die during the story? 25.5 [There are really two protagonists in Tangled (2010), and only one of them is an orphan.]

The number of films featuring dead fathers, including those that die during the story? 27.5

In other words, more fathers than mothers die or are dead by backstory in Disney and Pixar films.

Yes, a lot of the dead fathers are because many Disney and Pixar heroes are orphans. However, that also accounts for a lot of the dead mothers.

The number of films featuring orphaned protagonists? 17.5 This includes such off-cited “dead mother” examples as Snow White and Cinderella.

That leaves us with a mere 8 films featuring dead mothers alone (compared with 10 films featuring dead fathers alone). That is not an usual number at all. In fact, that is quite ordinary when considering that orphans or missing parents form a considerable plot point or character trait in a story.

Losing a parent is a traumatic experience whether one is five, fifty-five, or seventy-five. Losing both parents, either at once or separately, is doubly traumatic. Even well-established adults feel a terrible sense of loss at being orphaned. Younger adults and children feel the loss more acutely because they lose stability and security. They have to struggle in life moreso than children whose parents are alive and present in their lives, so their stories are extraordinary – the perfect quality for a hero. Hence, the prevalence of orphaned or single-parent heroes in stories.

What also must be taken into consideration is the source material for many of Disney’s stories. Whether they come from fairy tales, poems, short stories, or folklore, many of these sources were created at a time when children were a lot more likely to lose their parents than in the modern era (post 1950). Nowadays, with the average life expectancy in the high seventies or low eighties, it is rare to meet people under the age of thirty whose parents are deceased. However, it was once not unusual for a woman to die in childbirth (hence missing mothers), nor was it unusual for a man to die in a workplace accident or in battle. Both parents, not to mention the children themselves, could easily die of infection or disease. A child who lost its mother was considered unfortunate, while a child who lost its father was considered an orphan; a child who lost both was an unfortunate orphan most likely to end up a statistic. A child who beat the odds, usually thanks to extended family and friends, was to be celebrated.

Disney used these stories as the source material for their films and did not change the heroes’ backstories involving lost parents. If the mother was missing in the source story, she was missing in the Disney movie. If the father was missing in the source story, he was missing in the Disney movie. In cases where some versions have one parent and some have two, the Disney movie may have selected one parent in order to streamline the story. Would it have mattered if Ariel in The Little Mermaid was arguing with both her mother and father, rather than just her father? Not one bit.

For the sake of completeness, here is a list of the Disney and Pixar Animated Canons (excluding those mentioned above as not relevant) and how they portray the heroes’ parents:

Film Mother Father Other Parental Figure(s) Reasoning Result
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepmother (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Pinocchio (1940) None (hero is a puppet) Alive Blue Fairy, Jiminy Cricket Source material No mother
Dumbo (1941) Alive Dead (backstory) n/a Source material; Elephants don’t marry Lost father
Bambi Dies in story Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Cinderella Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepmother (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Alice in Wonderland (1951) Alive Alive n/a Source material
Peter Pan (1953) Alive Alive n/a Source material; Peter Pan is orphaned by choice
Lady and the Tramp (1955) Alive (adoptive) Alive (adoptive) n/a Source material; main character is a pet
Sleeping Beauty (1959) Alive Alive Father-in-law; Good Fairies Source material; Prince Philip’s missing mother is also true to setting Aurora has both parents; lost mother for Philip
101 Dalmatians (1961) Alive (Pongo) Alive (Perdita) Roger & Anita (dog owners) Source material; other puppies may have been orphans
The Sword in the Stone (1963) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepfather (antagonist) Source material Orphan
The Jungle Book (1967) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive animal parents Source material Orphan
The Aristocats (1970) Alive (adoptive) Unknown Heroine also a mother Source material; main character is a pet Lost father
Robin Hood (1973) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Nursemaid (ally) Source material; main character adult Orphan
The Fox and the Hound (1981) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive Source material; main character is a pet Orphan
The Great Mouse Detective (1986) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material; missing mother true to setting Lost mother
Oliver & Company (1988) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive owner Source material; main character is a pet Orphan
The Little Mermaid Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Beauty and the Beast Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Aladdin (1992) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Father-in-law True to setting Aladdin is an orphan; lost mother for Jasmine
The Lion King (1994) Alive Dies in story Adoptive parents Main characters are animals Lost father
Pocahontas (1995) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) Dies in story Dead (backstory) Stepfather (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Hercules (1997) Alive Alive n/a Departed from source material
Mulan (1998) Alive Alive n/a Source material
Tarzan (1999) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive mother Source material Orphan
Dinosaur (2000) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive parents Orphan
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Secondary protagonist & his wife True to setting; main characters are adults Orphan
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Main characters are adults Lost mother
Lilo & Stitch (2002) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory Older sister True to setting Orphan
Treasure Planet (2002) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) n/a Source material Orphan
Brother Bear (2003) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) n/a Source material Orphan
Chicken Little (2005) Alive Alive n/a
Meet the Robinsons (2007) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive family Orphan
The Princess and the Frog (2009) Alive Dies in story n/a Source material; true to setting Lost father
Tangled Mixed Mixed Adoptive mother (antagonist) Source material; true to setting Rapunzel has both parents; Flynn is an orphan
Frozen (2013) Dies in story Dies in story n/a Source material; true to setting Orphans
Mary Poppins (1964) Alive Alive Nanny Source material
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive mother Source material Orphans
Enchanted (2007) Dead (backstory) Alive Stepmother; potential stepmother Lost mother
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Alive Dies in story n/a Main character is an adult Lost father
Toy Story (1995) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
A Bug’s Life (1998) Alive Dead (backstory) n/a Main characters are insects Lost father
Toy Story 2 (1999) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
Finding Nemo (2003) Dies in story Alive n/a Main characters are animals Lost mother
The Incredibles (2004) Alive Alive n/a
Up (2009) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) Adoptive grandfather Main character is an adult Carl is orphaned due to age; lost father for Russell
Toy Story 3 (2010) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
Brave (2012) Alive Alive n/a

Rather than portraying motherhood negatively or sweeping it under the rug and devaluing it, Disney and Pixar films overwhelmingly portray mothers as positive characters that are essential to the heroes’ successes. Their absence is keenly felt. Parental figures are praised for raising the heroes (or adopting them) and shamed for not doing so, such as “evil stepmothers”. All of the dead mothers have a historical basis for being gone. Furthermore, many of these stories involve animals, whose different life expectancies and life trajectories make lost parents a lot more likely.

A large number of these films feature no lost parents at all. Some of these parents are non-existent in the film (such as in Alice in Wonderland), but others are the main characters, such as in The Incredibles. Looking at this list, it seems that Disney/Pixar have a record of balanced stories: some missing fathers, some missing mothers, some missing both parents, and some missing no parents. Whether or not a hero’s parents are deceased depends largely on the story being told.

My question is, therefore, how did the myth of the missing mom get started? Was it really just The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast that got audiences noticing the lack of mothers? How do they notice the lack of mothers, but not the lack of fathers? Also, just because the mother has few to no lines doesn’t mean she is non-existent, as those who would lump Sleeping Beauty into the missing mom category.

There is no conspiracy against moms in Disney films. There is just beautiful animation and fun storytelling.

Disney thumbnails

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What’s With Fictional Name Rules?

Biblical-NamesAll over our lives, we are met with names. We have names for places, things, concepts, pets, and of course, people. For a person, a name is something that is usually thought out and researched. There are hundreds of baby name books available (not to mention websites) that try to cater to every type of parent. Not content to simply give definitions for names, they also have top-ten lists, names that go well together, names to avoid, names that are themed, and names that are “unique”.

[For more on baby name trends, see this excellent essay.]

In real life, it is soon obvious that, with few exceptions, a name is not unique. The mere fact that it is in a book of names means that someone has picked it before. It has a history, whether it was last popular a century ago or whether it is a new variation on a name that has been recently popularized. One can try to pick a name for their child that ensures that they will be the only child with that name in their school, but eventually, one will find another person with their name.

Also in life, we meet lots of people with the same or similar names. Depending on the name, these people may be quite varied in age, social status, and geography: you may know seventeen people with the name Andrea, Andrew, Andy, or Andra, and these seventeen people could be your friends, your neighbour, your kids’ school janitor, a barista at your local coffee shop, your co-worker, and your second cousin’s spouse.

Amazingly, our brains generally can keep all of these individual persons straight, even those with the exact same name, for the following reasons: we don’t meet all of them at once, we associate them with different places (“Andy the Janitor”, “Andi the Coffee-Shop Girl”, “our friend Andrea”, etc.), and we are able to come up with ways to distinguish in an obvious way, such as with last names or nicknames. Unless you do end up meeting all of them at once, keeping track of them is so obvious that we don’t think about it often.

Yet, in fiction, giving characters names that are the same is considered to be a bad thing unless there is a connection between them. Generally, it is acceptable to give the same or similar names for the following reasons: a) they are related in a family; b) one is a successor to the other, such as the school bully Andy whose little sister is tormented by a girl called Andi; or c) they are going through a parallel character arc.

Why is this so? Why, if it is easy enough to distinguish between Andy the Janitor and Andi the Coffee-Shop Girl and Andi the Neighbour’s Daughter in our real universe, would it be difficult to distinguish between the same characters in a fictional one?

In the case of a work with a limited number of characters, such as a play or short story, I can understand that unless there is a joke in the names, one should give the characters distinct names. Andy the Janitor should probably not buy his coffee from a girl named Andi when the name Sara will do just fine.

However, in longer works such as novels or television series, why should names be such a big deal? If I want to write a story wherein Sara has six people named Andy or Andi in her life, why should that be a problem for a reader? Just as in real life, one introduces characters one at a time and provides context for them. In such a case, it would be my lazy writing that might make it unclear to whom I’m referring, not the fact that they had different names.

Furthermore, in visual works such as a film, Andi the Coffee Shop Girl would look different from Andi the Neighbour’s Daughter and certainly quite a bit different from Andy the Janitor. Also, in a television series, if Andi the Coffee Shop Girl was a regular character, the occasional appearance by Andi the Neighbour’s Daughter would not confuse viewers.

Is it making a story unnecessarily complicated to give multiple characters the same or similar names? I don’t think it does. Done right, readers and viewers would hardly notice at all if the names were not a plot point.

Perhaps it comes down to simply this: in real life, we have to keep track of multiple people (and sometimes pets and other entities) with the same name; in fiction, we want to relax and not have to do that.

Furthermore, naming characters gives us a chance to be creative – we can even use names for fictional people that we would never use for our own children. Why stifle that creativity with realistic repetitiveness?

The reason that I think this is an issue is really only applicable in “realistic fiction”, be it a novel, television episode, or movie. Having no one named the same or similar can actually cause a break in one’s suspension of disbelief, particularly the more characters that are introduced. Your main character has one of the top-ten names of the past generation and yet does not encounter a single member of the human race who shares their name? This is especially jarring when the cast of the show have the same name, or if the story has been ongoing for several books or seasons.

Simply put, names are fun, but they are not unique. The individual behind the name is. In the right context, what the name is doesn’t matter.

everyday-name-book-315x236

[For more information/discussion about names in fiction, click here.]

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Hook (1991)

Hook-movie-posterThis movie is fantastic – but not when you are six years old. While it is a continued story of Peter Pan and features the wonderful talents of the late Robin Williams, much of its themes go over the head of children and its running time of over two hours is really too long to hold their attention span. At the age of six, I was given the option of seeing Hook or Beauty and the Beast in theatres. I picked Hook because my mother made it sound better. In hindsight, considering that I love Beauty and the Beast and have seen the animated film multiple times as well as the live-action Broadway musical, the fact that I missed seeing that film in theatres was a non-issue. However, I only watched Hook again recently.

Twenty-two years later, this film makes a lot more sense. The theme of growing up being a new adventure, and that one must not lose sight of loved ones and what really matters in life, resonate with an adult audience. Others who have a more fond recollection of Hook (perhaps who were a bit older than six) remember the fun scenes with the Lost Boys: the flying pirate ship, the food fight, the skateboarding, and the sword-fighting. However, the theme of the movie is somewhat lost. It is not about those things – it is about love and family. Robin Williams balances the role of Peter as both a man who remembers the fun of youth and one who can lead his family with strength. Returning to Neverland reminds him what makes a good father.

Unlike the film Courageous, Hook never outright calls itself a movie about fatherhood. However, the main plot is of an overworked business lawyer who has the best of intentions for his children but loses sight of how much he has neglected them. When kidnapped by Captain Hook, Peter’s son prefers the attention that the pirate gives him. This is an obvious lesson for fathers: if you neglect your children, especially boys, they will find other father figures to take your place. Most often, these other father figures are those with ill intentions. Meanwhile, the Lost Boys are in need of a father figure to provide direction. In the past, that was Peter Pan, and his replacement is at first sceptical that the famous Peter Pan could really be the same man who is now a cheerless, unimaginative lawyer.

Hook is a beautiful story about how growing up is inevitable and preferable to the constant fighting of Neverland, and that family is what makes the growing up worthwhile. It also reminds us that growing up is possible without losing one’s joy and imagination. Really, without those, there is no point in growing up at all.

All of this flew over my head at six years old. I would have much preferred the Enchanted Objects. However, I am glad that I gave Hook a well-deserved second chance. I was truly missing out on a great story.

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