Moana (2016)

This film had been on my “get around to watching” list since its release last November, so with it being summer and with me getting my ocean fix, it seemed like the perfect time to watch Disney’s Moana.

Perhaps to get as far away from their last princess film, Disney set this story in the South Pacific. Instead of snow, we got ocean. (Although both involved protagonists with supernatural connections to water…) In a radical departure from previous “princess” stories, there was no romance at all. Even Brave contained an element of romance, in that chieftains’ sons were supposed to be competing for Merida’s hand. Moana is just about Moana and her heroics. The film is about finding one’s place, following one’s calling, and figuring out what the “right thing” to do is (and then how to accomplish it). There is indeed love – love for family, home, and community; love for the environment; and love for one’s heritage.

The age of Moana, our teenage heroine, is unspecified, but she seems to be about fourteen. In other words, she is not too young for romance entirely, but too young for modern audiences to identify with a realistic romantic storyline for her. That would have been a different film and we might have enjoyed it in the right historical context, but it would not have resonated with viewers. Thankfully, we got this film instead!

Moana is chosen when she is still a small child by the ocean itself to restore balance to the islands. Meanwhile, she is also heir to her father in a long line of chiefs. Her people have decided to remain on their current island because it seems to be safe, even though the environment is getting worse and unsustainable. Moana’s father discourages her love of the ocean and teaches her how to follow in his footsteps. Rather than simply exhibiting youthful rebellion, Moana chooses to do as is expected of her and it is only out of a love and concern for her people’s wellbeing and future that she eventually defies her father and sets off on her adventure.

There is still plenty of escapism to be had, but Disney has done well with creating a family film that is magical and inspiring while still being relatable. It is a fairy tale, but the ending is not “and they lived happily ever after” – although it could be implied, the story is the one that every young person has to go through from childhood to adulthood. Growing up is not an ending.

Moana gets to go on a heroic quest – a job usually reserved for males in these types of stories. Her character could have been a boy and there would be little change needed for the plot to work. In fact, nothing would have been different. It is nice to see a girl playing the every-person figure. Moana is not special because she is female – she is special because she is the hero. Boys and girls should theoretically both be able to identify with her and her quest.

That said, having environmental balance being restored by a woman makes a lot of poetic sense. Nonetheless, it is not discussed in the film. Moana is simply on her quest. A male version of her could have theoretically completed it. I am not complaining though – heroines in their own right are needed and Moana is a wonderful example.

The characters, scenery, and music in the film are wonderful. The story is timeless, albeit very timely. This is not my new favourite, but it is not one I will relegate to the “not bothering to see again” list. (One of the luxuries of no children is having such a list.)

And yes, I will eventually watch it in French as well.

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Trolls (2016)

Trolls (2016)

When I was about seven years old, I had a small collection of Troll dolls. At some point between seven and seventeen, they went into a garage sale or donation bin, or perhaps were given away. I don’t really remember, since I suppose I didn’t have much attachment to them. They were fun to play with and brush their hair, and they were cute in a homely sort of way (those big eyes!). I don’t remember their names – and my toys tend to have names that I recall for years.

So it wasn’t really nostalgia that led me to watch Trolls (2016), which is based on the line of toys. It was more curiosity at seeing how they made the toys into a good story.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the story works. It is not a complicated or difficult story. It uses a lot of clichés and well-known plot devices, but it uses them to great effect. The film is not innovative (at least not story-wise), but it is entertaining. For a young audience, it is perfect. While adults can scoff at whole-plot references, children can make the connections between stories – sometimes for the first time. This is a perfect family film, as no matter how old you are, the music is catchy, the colours are dazzling, the jokes are funny, and the plot surprisingly relevant.

In a nutshell, the Trolls are perpetually happy creatures (or at least, most of the time) whose home and lives are threatened by creatures that want to eat them in order to partake of their happiness. These creatures believe that without eating Trolls, they will never be happy. Long story short, the creatures come to realise that true happiness can only be found from within themselves, the Trolls are saved and allowed to return to their original home, and the main characters face up to their neuroses to be friends.

Despite it being somewhat obvious, the message that happiness cannot be consumed artificially (or artificially enforced) needs to be restated. Our modern culture tends to promote the opposite – one could even argue that the film is the type of thing one is supposed to “consume” in order to be happy.

Also shown in the film is that there is a difference been hope and happiness. While most of the Trolls seem to be too happy, it is in fact their optimism that allows them to be that way. They are filled with hope and they look on the bright side of life. Is it overwhelming? Absolutely, if you are not optimistic.

At the beginning of the film, neither the Trolls nor the creatures are emotionally balanced. By the end of the film, it may seem that everyone is happy, but it is not simply artificial happiness. There is a renewed sense of hope in all of the characters, and that hope is what drives their happiness. It is true joyfulness.

To paraphrase one of the main characters, it is important to know that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it is important to believe that it is mostly that way. After all, there is no rainbow without rain.

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The Martian (2015)

The Martian (2015)

Going back to my space theme, I finally got around to watching The Martian recently – it has been on my to-watch list for awhile. I was interested to see it because the book that the film was based on claimed to be quite scientifically accurate and thus I wanted to see how well they translated the science into the film; I was also unsure about watching a film about a man being stranded on Mars. It seemed like it had the potential to be amazing or to be boring and cerebral, as many sci-fi films involving stranded characters can be.

Luckily, The Martian is relatively lighthearted and very realistic. The main characters, especially our stranded hero, are entirely relatable. They are quirky, funny, dedicated, and believable. While Matt Damon as the titular Martian Mark Watney (well, stranded astronaut, but I digress) is the heart of the film, his supporting cast are just as important. We see both our plucky hero struggling to survive and the concerted effort on the ground to get him home again. The emotions that the supporting characters go through – from their sadness at losing Watney to their dread at realising that he is stranded to their adrenaline-filled determination to get him back – are exactly what I would expect from people in such a situation.

That is indeed what is magical about this film – it feels almost like a documentary in how realistic it is. Nothing seems too far-fetched. The technology is slightly further ahead of ours (the film is set in the 2030s), but nothing out of the question from what we already have. Great attention to detail was put into this film, even when they are not explicitly stated.

What I especially appreciated about The Martian was its endless optimism – not just about rescuing Watney, but about human collaboration in general. Watney is a fairly typical American hero at the beginning, but he comes to represent humanity as a whole. The world comes together, at least in spirit, to bring a human back to Earth. It is not about prestige, but about advancing our common knowledge and pulling together for a common cause.

In our current climate, pulling together for a common cause can seem hopelessly out of reach. It seems that increasing political polarization is artificially dividing us more strongly than any national borders, religious divides, or natural barriers. While missions to Mars may seem more glamourous than adapting to (and helping to prevent further) climate change or combating inequalities among peoples, we need to work together on these causes. It is not about leaving the planet, but dealing with it. We can only do that if we recognise that we are all humans – Earthlings, not Martians – and we cannot let ourselves be divided. For now, this planet is our only home.

Furthermore, if we are to eventually go to Mars, we need to do it together. Sure, a bit of competition could be helpful to get things started, but for any long-term goals to be accomplished, all humans of all nationalities need to cooperate and support each other in the endeavour to turn any other planets into a new home.

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Perhaps continuing in the vein of disturbing pretexts for relationships, Beauty and the Beast is not without controversy. The original fairy tale entirely involves Belle being sold to the Beast by her father and learning to love him; the 1991 Disney film updated the heroine and made the story be rather about the Beast being tamed. The 1991 film has been one of my favourites since childhood and I have to admit that I never thought that Belle fell in love with the Beast simply because she had to. The story was always very clear that the Beast was the one who needed to earn her love.

The 2017 live-action Disney film follows the same premise as its predecessor – namely, that the Beast needs to learn to love Belle and earn back her love (and in the process, also learning to love himself, which seems to be a new addition, or at least more overtly displayed). The fact that Belle is kept as his prisoner in his castle – albeit a very large castle with lots of freedom within it – seems to be the biggest hurdle for some viewers to overcome. However, as is made plainly obvious in the films (and in the original fairy tale too, for that matter), the Beast cannot earn Belle’s love until he releases her from being his prisoner. She falls in love with him because they both have common interests and because she is lonely, but she still cannot wholeheartedly love him because she is afraid of being eaten.

Now that we’ve got that awkward bit out of the way…

The remake of Beauty and the Beast is just as enchanting as its predecessor. The effects are stunning, the characters are believable, the plot holes are mostly solved, and the music is powerful. The new songs are gripping and the old favourites have a lot more staying power when they are sung by real people onscreen. (I suppose that it does help that there is a stage version of the show already.) The story lends itself well to being a movie musical without being cartoonish. The new and expanded characters feel intrinsic to the story and it is easy to forget that they did not exist in the animated version.

The one tiny problem was Emma Watson as Belle. She did a wonderful job in the role and she embodies everything that Belle should be (in real life) – but therein lies the issue. While all of the other characters felt real, Belle came across a bit too much like “Emma Watson playing Belle”. This is likely due to the fact that all of the other actors, to varying extents, are disguised. Belle, on the other hand, doesn’t even have the brown hair that she does in the 1991 film! Would it have been too much out of the budget for Emma to dye her hair brown? Or wear a brown wig, as many of the actresses who have played Belle onstage have done? When so much attention has gone into making the other actors fit into their roles, the fact that they basically left Emma untouched is jarring. Honestly, the audience would still recognize her with brown hair! But she would have seemed a bit more like Belle.

I am not going to really complain about Emma’s singing – I thought it was fairly good and perfectly how I would expect an eighteenth-century Frenchwoman with no singing training to sound like. Unfortunately, not all of her lyrics were adapted to suit her voice. They were written for Broadway belters, who seem quite out of place in a live-action film.

Otherwise, I was simply mesmerized by the film – and not just because I was stuck staring at it through 3D glasses awkwardly propped over my existing glasses (and therefore could not look away for fear of being extremely disoriented). It was everything that it promised to be.

Was it better than its predecessor?

Yes, in the sense that it feels richer and more complete. Yes, in the sense that it feels more magical and yet more realistic. No, in the sense that both are wonderful movies films with different strengths. I enjoyed them both.

And eventually, I’m going to have to watch this one in French too.

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Passengers (2016)

Passengers (2016)

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I was intrigued. Truth be told, I was intrigued by the premise itself. Here was a story about being trapped in space that did not seem to involve murderous aliens or a government conspiracy. It really was just about two people stuck on a ship that malfunctioned. Ordinary folk caught up in something bigger than themselves.

There was a lot of criticism of this story, mostly of the nature of the relationship of the two leads. As an audience, we are led to believe that the main characters have fallen in love, but our Earth-minded sensibilities keep us from appreciating the enormity of the situation and how unusual it would be.

Short synopsis: A man wakes up prematurely from cryogenic hibernation aboard a ship on autopilot toward a colony on a planet. The reasons why are unknown to him, but he has woken up 90 years too early, and he is entirely alone. He is a mechanic by trade, not an engineer or anyone with any training on how to run the ship. He doesn’t even have access to first-class meals, let alone working areas of the ship that would normally be manned by the crew. His only company is a robot bartender. After a year, after much agonizing over the decision, he wakes up a woman whom he has fallen for from reading her work and watching videos of her from the ships database. She eventually falls in love with him over the course of the following year. Meanwhile, the ship continues to decline and they have to figure out how to save themselves, but this takes a backseat to their relationship, especially when the woman discovers that she was woken up on purpose.

I found the story surprisingly plausible. When you are trapped alone with the prospect of never interacting with another living human being for the rest of your life, you would not think rationally. Humans are social creatures. It is only natural that the man would wake up someone else. It was an entirely selfish act, but he is shown both agonizing over it and then being repentant. The woman also had the choice to fall in love with him or not – even if it was heavily guided by loneliness and biology. Two people alone on a spaceship is not a normal situation, and thus normal rules are insufficient to analyse it.

More importantly, the characters are also symbolic of humanity as a whole. We do not get to choose who we are stuck with on our planet. Our rational choices are checked by our instincts and desires. We are not experts in how to fix our planet, but we have to try. We also have to trust our experts, even if they seems to treat us with disdain or confusion, or if they do not have all of the answers either.

I have heard the analogy that we are all crewmembers on our planet, but we are also all passengers. We like to think of ourselves as insignificant and ordinary – we would rather focus on our families, work, sports, celebrities, etc. We think we can do nothing and so thus we should not try. We only have one life to live, but we can do a lot with it.

Forgiveness is a central theme of the film. The man needs to forgive the ship (and the company that owns it as well as the crew) for waking him up too early; the woman needs to forgive the man for waking her up to join him. They need to forgive because they cannot continue to co-exist otherwise, no matter if one believes in forgiveness being good for the soul. Contempt and hatred won’t save the ship, nor make the stay on the ship pleasant.

There is so much more to this movie than simply a disturbing pretext for a romance!

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Schoolgirl Katy

copyright 2017

I should be glad to be so joyful,
I should just enjoy the feeling,
Let it pass eventually, as it always does.

I’m just a giddy schoolgirl,
Pretending at being grown up,
Sooner or later I will wake again to reality.

I always want what I can’t have,
I dream nonsense dreams,
I am too old to be so naive anymore.

I need to stop playing dolls,
Real dreams take work,
And I can make a difference if I get out of my head.

But yet I’m driven to tears,
I don’t want to give up yet,
Why can’t I take a flight of fancy when I know I will wake up soon?

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The Book Ends

ONCE UPON A TIME
Season 6, Episodes 21 & 22 (The Final Battle – Parts 1 & 2)

If this was how the story had ended, it would have indeed been satisfying. But true to the fact that every story has a happy ending if you stop it at the right place, the book ended on a note of hope – the adult characters were in their right minds and the young characters were safe to grow up. Everyone was a happy family – but since time marches on, the story cannot really end. It just picks a nice place to stop.

For how hyped it was, the final battle was not so much physical as it was mental and spiritual. The themes of the series have always been belief, hope, and love – in that order. The first one – belief – has often been set aside in favour of the latter two because it is essential to appreciating the story. However, without belief, this is simply a nonsense story about fairy tale characters.

The Black Fairy’s plan is thus to make Emma believe that it was indeed all nonsense. In doing so, the rest of main characters will be obliterated from existence and the Black Fairy thinks she will able to have supreme power. I am not sure if her plan would actually have worked, but she did not count on Henry’s determination or her own son’s desperation. Henry tries to take on the Black Fairy himself, even if Emma refuses to believe him; Rumplestiltskin realises that his mother double-crossed him by separating him from Belle and insists on getting her back and freeing Gideon from the Black Fairy’s stranglehold. Like grandfather, like grandson – resulting in the Black Fairy’s demise and Emma’s willingness to give credence to Henry’s story.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets shoved aside as they try to help both themselves and Emma, but are ultimately trapped. It led to some excellent character moments – Charming and Hook going on one last quest together; Snow not letting her husband get left behind; Regina working with her Evil Queen counterpart to try to magic their way back to Storybrooke; and gradually everyone realising that they are doomed, with the Evil Queen sacrificing herself to give the others more time to escape. Had these scenes been cut, the main plot would have been unaffected – but the audience needed these scenes. Otherwise, our favourite characters would have been trapped in a book for over an hour. For all their being heroes or villains, they were powerless to save themselves.

Not only was Emma’s belief tested, but also Rumplestiltskin’s. He was tempted first by his mother and then by his own dark conscience to give in to his lust for power, but he was able to throw off this temptation. He believed in his own inner strength and trusted that doing what was right for Gideon and the greater good would also be what was right for him. He did not know what the outcome of his actions would actually be, but he knew that he had to try.

The actual physical sword battle, such as it was, was fairly short. Emma realised that she could not kill Gideon, even in self-defense, and so she sacrificed herself. Again, she had no knowledge that she could be revived or that Gideon would be redeemed through her actions, but she did so anyway.

Thus everyone’s storylines were resolved, and they celebrated together as an oddly assorted family. But since they were not dead, their stories were not over.

The story briefly picked up twenty years later – promising new adventures and more stories. After all, twenty years is a long time! There will be lots to catch up with.

But for now, pass the rum, lasagna, and cinnamon cocoa, and put the book back on the shelf.

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