Archives for 2014

On Top of the World! Disney’s Big Hero 6: Review

Big_Hero_6_film_posterby Aaron Einhorn
In some ways, it’s weird to see Big Hero 6 being heralded as the first ever Disney/Marvel collaboration. We are now closing in on it being half a decade since Disney purchased Marvel, which means that every Marvel film since The Avengers has been solely produced and distributed by Disney, and we’ve seen Disney take control of Marvel-related animated series on their cable networks. Big Hero 6 is also not close to being Disney’s first work with superheroes, being proceeded by The Rocketeer, The Incredibles and Sky High.

It may be the first time Disney has brought an animated feature film to the screen that is based on Marvel characters, but to be honest, the team of Big Hero 6 bears only the loosest resemblance to the heroes from the comic pages. (So much so that Marvel has even said that they have no plans to reprint those issues, because the characters found there are not going to be the ones that movie fans are looking for.)

So, let’s get the whole issue of “the first” aside, because at the end of the day, that question is really only of interest to comic book wonks. What we really want to know is, did the studio which has brought us The Incredibles and The Avengers deliver with Big Hero 6? Read on to find out.

Synopsis

From Walt Disney Animation Studios, the team behind Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, comes Big Hero 6, an action-packed comedy-adventure about the special bond that develops between Baymax, a plus-sized inflatable robot, and prodigy Hiro Hamada. When a devastating event befalls the city of San Fransokyo and catapults Hiro into the midst of danger, he turns to Baymax and his close friends; adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago, neatnik Wasabi, chemistry whiz Honey Lemon and fanboy Fred. Determined to uncover the mystery, Hiro transforms his friends into a band of high-tech heroes called Big Hero 6.

BIG HERO 6The Feature

Big Hero 6 is an interesting mix of being a classic superhero story and a fairly traditional Disney film. We have the Disney protagonist (young, orphaned, ready to go off and have their adventure), but we also have a very typical superhero origin story that could have been taken from the script for Iron Man (genius inventor finds that his technology is being used by an evil mastermind, uses technology left by his deceased family member and his own developed super suit to do battle against his own tech).

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This makes for a film that is both extremely satisfying from the point of view of action and spectacle (the scenes of Baymax and Hiro flying through the skies of San Fransokyo are right up there with those of Stark flying in his Iron Man armor, and the battles between the team and Yokai are easily as well done as those of the Avengers facing against the Chitauri), while also giving us plenty of time to explore the family dynamics and relationship between Hiro and his brother Tadashi (and then later, Baymax).

The team of heroes, including Hiro and Baymax, and rounded out by Honey Lemon, Wasabi, Go Go and Fred, round the cast out nicely, with each character having enough personality to be distinct characters, and their various super suits are varied enough to keep the heroes from being redundant. Other members of the cast have certainly enough personality to keep them interesting and make them more than just background, and they’re all fairly consistently developed, which is certainly a plus.

On the downside, one of the glaring missteps that we noticed was that the friendship between Hiro and the rest of the gang is almost completely left off-screen. We have it clearly established that they were all very good friends (and classmates) with Tadashi, and it is implied that Tadashi told them all about his genius-prodigy-younger-brother-who-has-been-wasting-his-time-with-bot-fights. There is a montage that has the potential to establish that Hiro has begun forging friendships with the rest of the gang, but their appearance in that montage is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it short. Similarly, they’re present at the memorial for Tadashi, but we don’t really see them interacting with Hiro, yet by the time we get to the second act, we’re supposed to just accept that they are all the closest of friends, and that the idea of putting on super suits and fighting Yokai is something they will all just go along with.

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A lot of this is simply a result of a badly balanced script. While establishing the relationship between Hiro and Tadashi is vital, a bit too much time is paid to it, and therefore not enough time is left to create the bonds between Hiro and Go Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi and Fred. In fact, for all that they are each developed a bit, and each character has distinct personalities and interests, we don’t see a lot of time given to any member of the team.

It’s a tough thing to balance, and certainly something that creators of other ensemble superhero films have struggled with. But one only needs to look at The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy or X-Men 2 to see where it works well. Big Hero 6 falls just a little short on that regard.

But what balances this misstep and makes the film delightful is Hiro and Baymax. Baymax is, perhaps, Disney’s most successful “cute sidekick” creation of the past two decades. He’s adorable and cute, but is also absent of the more annoying traits of the cute sidekick. Although ignorant of many things, Baymax is never dumb. His voice is calm and soothing instead of loud and grating. And he absolutely is vital to the plot, in a way that cute sidekicks never are.

Little kids will want a plush Baymax to cuddle. Older kids will want an armored-up Baymax to play with and to fight alongside the Avengers and Justice League and Incredibles. And parents will wish they had a Baymax to send out in to the world alongside their children.

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The Good

We have great action, inspired character design, and a really touching story about two brothers. Add in a villain with a complex motivation, and some great moral lessons and Disney delivers again.

The Bad

Insufficient time is given to four members out of the six heroes to make them fully-realized characters. They’re great sketches, but that’s all they are.

The Ugly

If you’re a big fan of the appearances of the Big Hero 6 from Marvel Comics, then this movie is not for you. Their names and powers are (mostly) the same, but the characters couldn’t be much more different.

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Final Thoughts

Again, Big Hero 6 is not a perfect movie, and it would be very easy to fall prey to letting this movie become a victim of over expectations. Which would be a shame, because what Big Hero 6 is, is a lot of fun. There’s a good heart-warming story at the film’s core, accompanied by some great action, incredible visuals, solid voice acting, and lovable characters.

Don’t overthink it. Sit back, relax and enjoy the film, and I think you’ll find Big Hero 6 to be a worthwhile experience. We really enjoyed it (the girls even said that they thought it was better than Frozen, which is an astonishing claim – although Christina and I didn’t think it was quite as good), and are even planning to take them to see it again.

Also, don’t forget that this is a Marvel movie. Look for the requisite Stan Lee cameo appearance, and be sure to stick around for the post-credits stinger.

Bonus

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Disney has typically included an original short film before their films, and they’ve really been knocking it out of the park with the last few animated releases. Wreck It Ralph featured the exquisite Paperman and Frozen gave us the hilarious Get a Horse. Big Hero 6 one-ups them with Feast, which is both incredibly funny and heart-breakingly sweet. The story of one man’s life through the dog he adopts – seen entirely from mealtimes. If Feast doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, then you’re made of stone.

A Study in Contrasts: Elsa and Regina on Once Upon a Time

10301601_710917885630375_897088975289582442_nby Aaron Einhorn
I’m a Disney fanboy. I make no excuses for it. I love Disney, always have. And I jumped on the Frozen bandwagon early (thanks to a sneak peek screening). So, last night, Christina and I sat down to watch as Frozen invaded Storybrooke in Once Upon a Time. Overall, we quite liked the episode, and the casting (even if we found Kristoff a bit too scrawny.) But what I found really interesting to think about were the similarities and differences between Regina and Elsa.

Similarity wise, they’re both queens – not Princesses, but Queens. And that’s a distinction that matters. They aren’t just “of noble birth” (which Regina isn’t, really) or just used to having wealth and power, but they’re both accustomed to ruling – something that Princesses aren’t.

They’re two of the only outright magically powered characters on the show. The only others are mostly inhuman (Rumple, Red, the Fairies) – even if they were human once – and the third is Emma, who is her own unique thing.

But where their similarities end, their differences are all the more interesting, because they’re such opposites. Visually, Elsa is taller, fairer of skin, light-haired, and wears light blues and whites. Regina is shorter, dark-haired (and wears it short), and favors dark colored clothing.

10685582_710780718977425_5943111331391290055_nIn terms of their magic, there is the obvious contrast. Regina’s favored magic is fire, while Elsa is all snow and ice (although they both have a curious penchant for affecting hearts).

But their personalities are where they are most strikingly different. Regina’s single biggest flaw has always been her inability to accept personal responsibility. Everything – everything – is someone else’s fault. And she’s not wholly wrong – Regina has certainly been the victim of master manipulators and tricksters, along with the most wretched set of circumstances. Regina isn’t a monster in her mind – she’s the victim looking for justice, and whenever someone else calls her a monster, she lashes out, looking for revenge.

Elsa on the other hand internalizes her fears and doubts, and sees herself as a monster when others don’t. While Anna tells her that she loves her, and that the things she’s done aren’t her fault, Elsa is the one to say “I’m a monster, I should be left alone.” Elsa can’t give herself the slightest allowance that, maybe, someone else is to blame for the circumstances.

They’re both wrong, of course, being at opposite ends of the spectrum instead of finding a healthy middle.

And of course, they come from the entire range of Disney’s animated films, with Snow White being the first animated feature film from Disney, and the first Princess movie, and Frozen being the latest (at least until Big Hero 6 arrives in a few months.)

Still, it has me really looking forward to seeing what this season will bring. And that doesn’t even touch on the other elements that I hope to see developed this year. I want more of Emma and Hook. I want more of Gold and Belle (and yeah, I am exactly fanboy enough to have appreciated his outfit, her gown, and the song). I want to see where Regina’s scheme goes (and I’m happy to see Sidney Glass back). And the hat… oh, the hat. Yeah, I’m sold.

I don't expect to see a certain mouse wearing this hat... but I'm sure it's the same one.

I don’t expect to see a certain mouse wearing this hat… but I’m sure it’s the same one.

Bring on more episodes!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Review

posterby Aaron Einhorn
When it comes to my favorite superheroes, believe it or not, I’m very much a DC Comics kind of guy. Superman will always be, for me, the ultimate expression of what a superhero should be. Batman, when handled right, is a fascinating character, and Wonder Woman should be the ideal to which all ladies can look up to.

But for the past decade or so, I’ve been solidly in Marvel’s camp. Not only have their comics been consistently better written, featuring both more nuanced character development but also having better epic, world-shattering events (despite a few missteps along the way), but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been knocking things out of the park, ever since Iron Man. While there have certainly been some films I enjoyed more than others, I haven’t disliked a Marvel movie yet.

That said, not going to lie, the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy left me cold. Peter Jason Quill, aka Starlord, seemed like an impudent man-child, and the film seemed like it was going to focus on humor of the lowest common denominator. Was this what the Marvel Cinematic Universe had come to? After the brilliance that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Later trailers softened my opinion, showing a bit more action, a bit more plot, and showing that Quill is rarely rewarded for acting like an idiot – so much so that, by the time I was able to attend a screening last night, I was actually quite looking forward to Guardians. So, now that I’ve seen the movie, did a thief, an assassin, two thugs and a maniac deliver on a film that is worthy to stand alongside The Avengers? Read on.

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The Milano flies away from Xandar.

Synopsis

From Marvel, the studio that brought you the global blockbuster franchises of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers, comes a new team–the Guardians of the Galaxy. An action-packed, epic space adventure, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos, where brash adventurer Peter Quill finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful villain with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. To evade the ever-persistent Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits–Rocket, a gun-toting raccoon; Groot, a tree-like humanoid; the deadly and enigmatic Gamora; and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer. But when Quill discovers the true power of the orb and the menace it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag rivals for a last, desperate stand–with the galaxy’s fate in the balance.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which first appeared in comic books in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (Jan. 1969), stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, featuring Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, with John C. Reilly, Glenn Close as Nova Prime Rael and Benicio del Toro as The Collector.

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The team assembled before their jailbreak.

The Feature

Guardians of the Galaxy is a fairly straightforward team-introduction movie, but that doesn’t make it boring or predictable. The movie begins with a very young Peter Quill on Earth, who following the death of his mother, is taken in to space. Why is he taken in to space, and by whom? Well, you’ll have to wait until later in the film for that. We then flash-forward several decades until Quill is a grown man and a thief, who in the pursuit of a MacGuffin, runs afoul of both the Kree and the Xandarians – two races who until recently, were at war. Caught between two galactic empires and a bounty on his head from a former partner, Quill crosses paths with Gamora, Rocket and Groot, which leads to all four in jail together where they meet Drax.

What follows is almost a comedy of errors and betrayals, as Quill and his companions escape the prison, attempt to sell the orb, then realizing that the Orb is actually one of the six Infinity Stones (and we have it confirmed for us that the Tesseract and the Aether are as well – clearly we’re building to the Infinity Gauntlet – a hypothesis only strengthened by the presence of Thanos as the man behind Ronan), we see the team trying to stop Ronan from using the stone to destroy all of Xandar and the Nova Corps.

Along the way, there is a lot of humor, a ton of action, and some surprisingly human and tender moments between Quill, Gamora, Drax and Rocket (with Groot continuing to steal every scene it appears in.)

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This is *not* Amy Pond.

The Visuals

Guardians is fairly middle-of-the-pack when it comes to visuals. Action scenes are shot well, with a minimal amount of shaky cam and quick cuts, from both space battles to hand-to-hand fights. We get some impressive scenery shots of both planet-wide-vistas and close-ups of exotic locales. I was particularly impressed with Knowhere, for instance. But where it does deserve special mention is in creature design. Guardians features more alien races than your typical Star Wars film, and each and every alien is believable. There’s still an emphasis on rubber-forehead aliens, but the more exotic creatures are present and fully-realized.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rocket and Groot. Although it’s impossible to be completely unaware of the fact that these two characters are CGI over a mo-cap suit, both characters feel like they’re actually present and have weight – and that takes some serious skill.

Rocket and Groot engage in carnage.

Rocket and Groot engage in carnage.

The Music

James Gunn has discussed the use of the soundtrack in the film and how he made use of it on the set. By having the audio tape worked in to the plot, we have a convenient excuse for why music of the late seventies is playing throughout the movie, and while the question of where, exactly, Starlord gets AA batteries for his Walkman is valid, it’s easily handwaved.

"Oh... yeah."

“Oh… yeah.”

The Good

The Guardians themselves are just about perfectly cast, and not a single one of them is the one-dimensional character you might expect them to be. Each member of the cast shows some nice development throughout the course of the film’s action, and every time I expected a cliché to rear its ugly head, Gunn manages to avoid it. I particularly like the fact that Gamora does not become a love interest for Quill – and the mostly naked shot of Zoe Saldana from the rear which is so prominent in the trailers did not make it to the final cut of the movie.

This isn’t strictly limited to the Guardians, either. We do manage to see some really nice character moments from Thanos’ daughter, Nebula (played by the lovely Karen Gillan), from Glen Close’s Nova Prime, and even John C. Reilly’s Nova Corpsman gets some nice moments.

Ronan was deadly before getting an Infinity Gem. Now? He may be unstoppable.

Ronan was deadly before getting an Infinity Gem. Now? He may be unstoppable.

The Bad

One of the reasons that The Avengers worked so well is that by the time the characters start meeting each other and making each other miserable (in advance of becoming an actual team), we had already met them all. We knew who Stark was, we knew who Steve Rogers was, we knew Thor. Guardians has to do a massive amount of world-building and character establishment before it can get us to that point, and it doesn’t always work. There are elements that simply do not get fully realized, and while some of this leads to future hooks for the next film (Who is Quill’s father? Comics fans know, but general audiences don’t. When Christina asked me, and I told her, she looked at me blankly and flat out said “You could be completely making that up.”), some of it just seems undeveloped.

"I'm Star-Lord, man."

“I’m Star-Lord, man.”

The Ugly

Some of those underdeveloped moments really hurt the development of the film’s villains. Much like Thor: The Dark World never had time to establish anything about who Malekith was and why he wanted to destroy everything, much less to define his right-hand-man, Kurse, we see the same thing here. Ronan’s defining moment is the way he first stands up to, and then betrays, Thanos. But that’s it. Why were the Kree and Xandar at war? Why was the peace treaty so hard to get signed? Why did Ronan reject it? Who is Korath? What drew Ronan into Thanos’ orbit, and why did Thanos give him the use of both Nebula and Gamora? We have no clue. And Ronan from the comics is not a one-note villain. He’s a man of honor and quite devoted to the good of the Empire. This Ronan has about as much personality as the Destroyer armor from Thor, and that’s a disservice to him.

Also, the stingers at the end of Marvel movies have been one of my favorite elements of them, and the stinger for Guardians was held back from the preview screening.

One by one, the cosmic McGuffins are assembled.

One by one, the cosmic McGuffins are assembled.

Final Thoughts

So, I quite liked Guardians of the Galaxy. The movie is a lot of fun, and is excellently paced – perhaps the best paced of Marvel’s films yet. The action is solid, the humor is great, and the acting deserves kudos all around.

I am already hearing people say that it’s the best Marvel film to date, and I think that is, perhaps, taking it a bit too far. I still think that Winter Soldier is the most perfectly put together of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, and The Avengers has better moments than Guardians – and more of them.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is everything I would hope for in a summer action film, and remains a worthy addition to the canon. The cosmic element of the Marvel Universe is here, and had a very solid foundation to build on.

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(Disclaimer: I was provided free tickets for the preview screening, however I received no other compensation. All opinions are mine and mine alone.)

A Few Thoughts About Disliking “Change” In Comics. Or Ice Cream.

10492273_10203159472400705_5082000371930497149_nby Aaron Einhorn
This past weekend was the San Diego Comic Con. Also known as SDCC, or Comic-Con International, or “Where Hollywood reveals all the nerd news fit to print for a year and we also occasionally talk a little bit about comics.” Unsurprisingly, a lot of news came out, and this was right on the heel of the announcements about Thor Odinson losing Mjolnir and the hammer being taken up by a new female character who will, initially at least, go by the moniker of Thor – and the news that Steve Rogers will age rapidly and his former partner Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) will take up the shield and title of Captain America for the near-future.

(I say near future because we all know that by the time Avengers: Age of Ultron is in theatres, Steve Rogers will be Captain America again, and Thor Odinson will once more be the God of Thunder.)

Coming out of Comic-Con, we’ve gotten footage from Arrow, Gotham, Age of Ultron, Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice. We’ve seen new costume designs, heard casting announcements, and sequels have been given dates.

10478135_10203171072570702_4554904111003099747_nSome people have been happy about bits of this news. Others have had criticisms. And some people have reacted to the criticisms by saying words to the effect of “God, you fanboys suck. All you’ve ever wanted was to see X (where X can be a combination of characters on the same screen, or a well-loved character finally getting a live action representation, or more diversity in comic line-ups, whatever). Now you’re getting it, and all you can do is complain? What’s wrong with you? Besides, you’ll go see it anyhow.”

So, allow me to present a metaphor.

 

If the “chocolate” ice cream you’re trying to serve me has nuts and fruit mixed in, and tastes more like raspberry than chocolate, than the argument that I can now have chocolate ice cream in a shake, or a sundae, or a float, and for the first time ever, can have it with strawberry ice cream and vanilla ice cream, instead of just having it on the cone, forgive me if I’m not grateful for the fact that there is chocolate ice cream being served at all.

Especially when I can go down the street and get mint chocolate chip from your competitor.

And before someone says “But you haven’t even tasted it yet,” that’s true. But I can still develop an expectation based on previous experiences and what I can see. If I don’t like strawberries, and I can see chunks of strawberry in the ice cream, it’s reasonable for to believe I won’t like the ice cream after I’ve tasted it.

I may still taste it eventually, but I might wait awhile to do so, and might go buy a new type of ice cream from your competitor first, and only try your strawberry concoction when I get around to it.

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Now, I’m not excusing nerd rage. Because that crap has gotten ridiculous – and there are fans who really need to relax. But so is saying that having criticisms is ridiculous and we should just be happy to get a movie featuring these characters at all.

No. I am allowed to not like what I’m seeing, politely say so, and spend my money elsewhere.

Someone asked me, when I first presented this metaphor, if I had a specific film in mind when writing this. And while I did, I had to ask if it really mattered? Because arguably one persons reasons for not liking the new female Thor could fit this analogy, while another persons feelings about Superman vs. Batman could fit, while another persons being upset with Marvel reprinting Miracleman could fit. While it’s certainly true that some of the negative responses to these things have been overblown, there are also many legitimate reasons to have criticisms. If you don’t like the news about the new Thor because you’re a misogynist, you should be called on it. If you don’t like Sam taking over for Steve because you’re a racist and Captain America is the Aryan Superman, you should be called on it. But if you don’t like it because you’re not a fan of mantle-passing in the comics at all? That’s legitimate.

wonder27f-2-webIn my case, I did write this about Superman/Batman. While I never minded any of the casting, I felt like Man of Steel was too dark – in tone and in visual style. The reveal of the footage from SDCC, and Gadot’s costume have only confirmed for me that this DC Cinematic Universe, much like their New 52, is not to my taste and liking.

I may still go see Dawn of Justice (although not until after I see Cap 3 if they stay on the same weekend), but I do not like what I’m seeing so far.

I do think that nerd-raging over the costume, or Gadot, or Affleck is silly. And that’s not what I’m doing. I’m not filled with rage, I’m just not seeing anything so far that is filling me with confidence for the film, meaning I thinking I’ll give it a pass, or at least a long delay. But when I say something like that, there are some who respond “Hey, be happy you’re getting Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in a live-action film at all. Don’t criticize.”

And I reject that. Not criticizing is why the studios were able to give us Superman IV and Batman and Robin. And at a time that there are really good superhero films being released, why should I settle for something that I don’t think looks good, just because it has some of my favorite characters in it?

Re-Focusing the Disney Villains

by Aaron Einhorn
It turns out that not twelve hours after writing this I was back in the theatre with Christina and the girls, watching Maleficent a second time. I am happy to say that, on a second viewing, I enjoyed the film a good deal more. Knowing that what I was going to see was a “She’s the misunderstood hero,” film, instead of watching Maleficent’s Start of Darkness made it a far easier film to enjoy the second time around, and everything I found charming the first time around was that much better without the baggage of expecting to see Maleficent actually be a villain.

That said, I still felt like, ultimately, Disney made a misstep with the film – because while Maleficent is a fun movie – and quite possibly a very good one – it is also one that more or less destroys Maleficent ‘s reputation as a villain. And while I applaud the trend seen in both Frozen and Maleficent to show female characters who actually have agency in their films, instead of being objects to be rescued or at best aides to the Hero (and bonus points for putting actual magical power into the hands of the protagonist, instead of keeping magic as something to be doled out by the wise and often inhuman mentor) – I still feel that ultimately, Maleficent has more worth as a brand as Villain than Hero.

Consider, if you will, the role of Maleficent in the Villain line. Look at the sample merchandise from the line, and see how prominent the Mistress of All Evil is – she is normally front and center, overshadowed only by Chernobog (who is given odd prominence considering how small his role in Disney mythology is. The only movie he’s a villain in is Fantasia, and there only for one segment. He doesn’t even have any lines.)

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Disney Vinylmation Figures – the Villains line has Maleficent front and center

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Maleficent is right there in the on-page logo of the Villains section of Disney’s online store.

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Maleficent in the “Dream Along With Mickey” show.

That doesn’t even begin to touch upon her role as a villain within the parks. Maleficent is the chief villain during the Dream Along With Mickey show in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, her dragon form is one of the main attractions in the Festival of Fantasy parade, and she is the climactic moment in Fantasmic! in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios.

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The Dragon form in the Festival of Fantasy parade.

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The climax of “Fantasmic!”

Additionally, for the readers in Disney fandom, Maleficent was chief among the Overtakers (Disney villains trying to take over the parks) in Ridley Pearson’s first four Kingdom Keepers novels.

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Maleficent’s malicious gaze threatens the heroic kids.

Heck, when Disney’s House of Mouse did their House of Villains movie, Maleficent even gets to sing the line that should have been the Evil Queen’s. (Check the video below at the 1:00 mark)

Is it worth diluting all of this just to add a female character (who will never be a part of the Princess line) with magical powers for fans? Even if Maleficent is a huge hit, little girls are not going to be casting aside their Anna and Elsa dresses to don the dark fairy’s black dress and horns (and, in fact, Disney doesn’t offer a child-sized version of the dress at this time, although adults can purchase Maleficent’s gown – when it’s back in stock.)

And that’s when it hit me. Maybe it is intentional.

Maleficent is, when it comes down to it, a relatively late addition to the Villains line. Snow White (1937) gave us the Evil Queen, who was relatively ignored until she leapt back to prominence thanks to Lana Parilla’s delightfully wicked performance on Once Upon a Time. Chernobog originates in 1940’s Fantasia. Lady Tremaine, Anastasia and Drizella (yes, they have names) come from 1950’s Cinderella – and Maleficent doesn’t appear for another nine years after that.

That’s right, of the “Classic” members of the Villains line, Maleficent is the second-to-last addition, only followed by Cruella di Ville.

Consider that earlier villains have fared much better on Once Upon a Time than their more recent additions. Ursula only actually appears once – her other appearance was actually the Evil Queen masquerading as the Sea Witch. Maleficent appears a few times, played by Kristin Bauer van Straten ( True Blood), but she consistently plays second fiddle to the power of Regina or the main characters. But Regina, the Evil Queen? She’s practically the star of the show. And Captain Hook (whose on-screen relationship with Disney began in 1953) has become a show mainstay, and the romantic interest for our lead.

Regina

Who’s the fairest of them all? Well, there is certainly an argument for it to be this version of Regina…

Meanwhile, despite Maleficent’s prominence in the early Kingdom Keepers novels, by Books Five and Six, she’s barely present and she doesn’t appear at all in the final volume – while the Evil Queen, Chernobog and Tia Dalma all gets lots of attention.

Notice that it is the Queen's eyes we see now, not Maleficent's.

Notice that it is the Queen’s eyes we see now, not Maleficent’s.

Could it be possible that someone in the Disney hierarchy has decided to move the focus away from Maleficent, for whatever reason?

Could the Flanderization of Maleficent be, in IT-Geek speak, be not a bug, but a feature?

In any case, we can be certain that long before the Green Light was given on Maleficent, someone at Disney made a long and hard calculation on the decision to transform one of the most pre-eminent members of the Villains line into a hero. Perhaps it’s a desire to cash in on the popularity that Wicked gave to the Wicked Witch. Maybe it’s the decision to shift the focus of the Villains line to other characters. Or maybe they have something else entirely in mind. But I can’t believe that they made Maleficent into a hero accidentally. And being the Disney fan that I am, I’ll confess to being very curious to see how this plays out.

Disney’s Maleficent: Review

Disney-Maleficent-Posterby Aaron Einhorn
Generally speaking, I like a nuanced villain. I like a villain who has a reason behind the evil acts that they do. Give me Magneto over the Red Skull any day. Because let’s face it, outside of thirteen year-old boys, no one really thinks of themselves as Evil. We’re all the hero of our own stories, after all, even if it may require a lot of self-justification on our parts.

So, for that reason, I tend to really like alternate-POV stories. I like to understand what makes a villain tick. The story of Erik Lensher is a fascinating one – but one that makes the actions of Magneto no less reprehensible. Loki has reasons for what he does in Thor, which is why Tom Hiddleston now has legions of fans – but no one would argue that Loki was right in doing what he did. Understanding is not the same thing as condoning, after all.

I’m even usually ok with those alternate tales where we find out that the character we thought was the villain is, in fact, the hero. Or might be, depending on which version of the story you want to believe. You cannot simultaneously accept both Wicked and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but you can certainly simultaneously enjoy both.

So, I did my absolute best to go into Maleficent with an open mind and willing suspension of disbelief. Would Angelina be able to deliver as a live-action rendition of one of the most iconic of the Disney villains?

Maleficent within the wall of thorns.

Maleficent within the wall of thorns.

Synopsis

Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take dramatic actions that will change both worlds forever.

The film stars Angelina Jolie as Maleifcent, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Before losing her wings, Maleficent is the protector of the moors.

Before losing her wings, Maleficent is the protector of the moors.

The Feature

The film starts with a young Maleficent, the orphaned fairy who is the protector of the moors – a fairy kingdom which has an uneasy relationship with their human neighbors. Enter the similarly orphaned Stefan, who enters the moors as a thief, but who strikes up a friendship – and ultimately, more than a friendship, with the fairy. As time passes and the years move on, Stefan’s ambition takes him away from his first love, and into the service of the king – a king whose dying wish is to destroy the fae on his borders and reclaim the moors as a part of his kingdom. Stefan’s ambition ultimately wins out on his loyalty to his lover, and as the old king dies, Stefan takes his place as the new King – while a betrayed Maleficent turns cold and bitter.

Incidentally, anyone who witnesses the moment where Jolie plays out Maleficent’s reaction to the betrayal and doesn’t feel their heart break, has no soul. It’s a masterful scene, and puts you completely on Maleficent’s side for the remainder of the film – if you weren’t there already.

This leads us to the scene from Sleeping Beauty that we all know and love, although Maleficent plays with a few details – and this is easily one of the best scenes in the entire film.

From there, the story follows the one we know, with the difference being that Maleficent is not hunting for the missing princess, but in fact watches her grow from infant to child to young woman, and although Aurora never knows the truth about her “fairy godmother,” the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent is fascinating to watch.

The film’s climax plays out not entirely dissimilar to the one from the animated classic, but different enough that you’ll never see it coming, with saviors found in unexpected places, and villains found in others.

Aurora (Elle Fanning) drawn to the spinning wheel like a moth to the flame.

Aurora (Elle Fanning) drawn to the spinning wheel like a moth to the flame.

The Visuals

Maleficent is stunning to look at. Whether the camera is looking at the sweeping views of the moors, zooming over a fierce battle between human and fae, closing in on the ruins of a spinning wheel, or focusing on the exquisite Ms. Jolie, the lens practically makes love to its subject.

The CGI is quite well handled, and the green-screening is easy to ignore, with the inconsistencies easily hand-waved by the fact that the entire film is, in fact, a fairy tale.

Special mention has to go to Rick Baker’s makeup effects on Angelina Jolie to transform her into Maleficent. The makeup is subtle, but deeply effective. There are prosthetics on her cheekbones and chin to change the shape of her face, and contact lenses to give her inhuman eyes, but you have to look really hard to notice. She may no longer be the green-skinned version of the character we know from the animated feature, but while she is unmistakably Angelina Jolie, she is also, without a question, an inhuman fairy creature.

"Listen well..."

“Listen well…”

The Music

To the disappointment of some, I’m sure, Maleficent is not a Disney musical. I know fans of either Sleeping Beauty, or the closest theatrical equivalent, Wicked will no doubt be dismayed, but ultimately this is probably for the best. Maleficent doesn’t need that level of being removed from reality that the “heightened reality” of being a musical would bring with it. That said, the score by James Newton Howard is strong and effective, and Lana Del Rey’s rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” (which plays over the closing credits) is absolutely haunting. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.

The Good

There are a lot of really good elements to the film, it’s hard to make a short list. To begin with, the film is almost entirely focused on Jolie’s Maleficent, and this is not a bad thing – because she is at her best in this role. Every now and then an actor goes on screen and you think “This is the role you were born to play.” It happened with Chris Reeve when he donned the red and blue tights of Superman, it happened when Robert Downey Jr. took the role of Tony Stark, and it is evident here with Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, green skin be damned. The CGI is solid, and most of the other acting is excellent. Sam Riley, who plays Diaval is surprisingly good, although his resemblance to a younger Orlando Bloom is oddly distracting. And as already noted above, this is visually a beautiful film, with a strong soundtrack.

The Bad

In Sleeping Beauty, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather are arguably the protagonists of the film. Aurora is beautiful, but she doesn’t actually do much, and without the aid of the faeries, Prince Philip would never have done anything other than be captured and then grow old in a cell. Our three fairies in Maleficent, Flittle, Thistletwit and Knotgrass, are silly, useless creatures who manage to do nothing effective throughout the course of the film. (They don’t even manage to be the reason the curse is mitigated from “death” to a “sleep like death” where she can be awoken by True Love’s Kiss.) Similarly, despite the fact that Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Philip does nothing without the aid of the fairies, in this film, he’s not much more than a glorified cameo.

The Ugly

Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan is not just a foil to Maleficent – he’s an entirely one-dimensional villain of Shakespearean temperament – willing to do anything for ambition, driven mad by the consequences, and completely uninteresting. He’s ambitious, and vengeful, and dull. And you know, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora was one of the few Disney princesses who had a father figure we could admire – why not destroy that?

King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) plots his revenge against Maleficent.

King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) plots his revenge against Maleficent.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, my feelings on Maleficent are that is a well-made film, beautifully shot (or composed, since so much of it is CGI against green screen), and for the most part, wonderfully acted.

And I was completely dissatisfied with the movie. Why? Well, because this is my vision of who Maleficent is.

My vision of Maleficent is one of a villain – and not just a villain but a villain who enjoys her villainy. She is evil, and she delights in being evil. And Maleficent gives us a very different character who happens to share a name.

I came into the screening hoping for a movie that would give us her backstory and make us feel sympathy for the famed villain. I was hoping we would see a reason for Maleficent to be the evil character we know her to be, but I was also hoping that she would still be a villain. And at the end of the day, Maleficent casts the dark fairy as the hero. She’s a flawed hero, to be sure, because what she does to Aurora is unprovoked and fairly horrible considering that Aurora is innocent of Stefan’s crimes – but the rest of the film makes it clear that the horrible things she does are only out of misguided vengeance.

It’s a great movie, but it’s not the one I was hoping to see. But having now seen it, and having deemed it to not be too scary for our daughters, we’re going to see it again. And I can admire it for what it is. But I’ll never be able to reconcile my feelings about this version of the character with the villain I love to hate in Sleeping Beauty and when I visit Disney World and watch Fantasmic.

But if you don’t have the irrational attachment to keeping Maleficent a villain the way that I do, I think you’ll be able to love Maleficent.

(Disclaimer: I was provided free tickets for the preview screening, however I received no other compensation. All opinions are mine and mine alone.)

Maleficent – Trailer From Equestria

by Aaron Einhorn
So, I’m a brony. I don’t hide this. But this should amuse any of my My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or any fans of Disney.

Check out this parody of the trailer for Disney’s Maleficent, done using Discord and Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony.

Calm Down, Internet!

by Aaron Einhorn
Megan Fox as April O’Neil
Ben Affleck as Batman
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
Channing Tatum as Gambit
Kate Mara as Sue Storm
Miles Teller as Reed Richards
Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm
Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm
Paul Rudd as Scott Lang

You know what all of these actors and their roles have in common? The fact that we don’t know anything about what their performance will be like. We can make some guesses as to how well they’ll fit physically, and we can even infer something based on past performances, but we do not know.

You know who does know? The casting directors for the films they’re on. And these people are paid a great deal of money to cast the right actor on the film to make it a success. They don’t have anything invested in crushing your dreams – they want to cast actors who have a mix of marketability and an ability to play the character. Yes, it’s about money, but making a good movie is how they make money.

You know who they have something in common with?

Michael Keaton as Batman
Chris Reeve as Superman
Henry Cavill as Superman
Chris Evans as Captain America
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

There were people ready to criticize and condemn each of these actors as being totally wrong for their characters before we saw the final result. And they all worked out (with varying degrees of success) pretty well.

So, hey, Internet? Can we all relax and not judge an actor until we see the final product? Besides, so much of the actual portrayal will have to do with the script and the direction that it’s only partially on the head of the actor in any case. I think that Brandon Routh and James Marsden both had amazing potential as Superman and Cyclops, but we never got to see that because of the script and direction.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t decide you’re not interested in seeing the film. I have less than zero interest in anything directed/produced by Michael Bay, and based on past performances, I wouldn’t expect to be impressed by Megan Fox’s acting so I won’t be seeing the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But I’m not going to judge Megan Fox’s April O’Neil unless/until I see the film.

My Super Hero

1276913_10201087475162069_1480911052_oby Aaron Einhorn
Hello, internet. It’s been a busy few weeks. Two weeks ago, the family took a trip to Walt Disney World. Last week, the Heroes Alliance Ohio branch did an appearance for the opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and I’d really like to get a review of that movie up here (the short version was that I really liked it.)

But there’s something more pressing for me to write about, and that’s to take a moment to thank the hero I look up to more than any other.

My wife.

Christina works tirelessly at her job working for BlogHer, and for all that she works from home, she routinely puts in well over forty hours a week. She tends not to log all of her hours, but I see the time she puts into her job. In addition, she maintains a blog and is involved with the school PTA.

But that’s not why she’s a hero.

She doesn’t always realize it, but she puts in a superhuman amount of effort for taking care of our daughters. Cordy’s autism means that there are a million tiny little challenges that are invisible until you stumble upon them, but she manages a complicated dance of arranging school schedules, outside activities, therapies, school meetings, doctors’ appointments, prescriptions and over-the counter supplements.

And then there’s our local school.

Columbus City Schools have, in the past year, twice caused us to go to war. The first time was with an ill-conceived levy that would have turned too much of the public school system over to private industry and charter schools, and the second time with a plan to change the way the Gifted and Talented programs are administered in a way that will be harmful to many of the kids in the district, and specifically will cause chaos and havoc in the lives of Cordy and Mira.

(You can read more about it here and here.)

Christina beats herself up because she feels like she doesn’t do enough. She apologizes to me for being so distracted and not there for me. She has no idea how much I admire her courage and dedication.

I love you, dear, more than I can ever say. But posting it here for the whole world to see is a start.

Mom-Son Superhero Party

Every year, all across the country around Valentine’s Day, community centers have Father-Daughter Dances, which is great, but why should Dads and their little girls have all the fun? What about the moms and their boys?

With that in mind, the Delaware Community Center YMCA hosted the 2nd Annual Mom-Son Superhero Party, and the Heroes Alliance were honored to be invited out as a part of the event, along with several local real heroes in the form of Firefighters and Police Officers.

Batman, Batgirl, Captain America, Doctor Fate, Gambit, Rogue, Spider-Man, Supergirl and Superman were overjoyed to be on hand, meeting the kids and their moms, joining in on the dancing, playing superhero-themed games, and signing autographs.

Thanks to Stephen Blanzaco and Carol Martin for out-of-costume support and photography!

This was the second year for the event, and over 200 moms and their sons turned out for the evening. The members of Heroes Alliance Ohio had a blast, and really hope to return next year.

To find out more about the Delaware Community Center YMCA, check out their website at http://www.ymcacolumbus.org/delaware

To find out more about the Heroes Alliance, visit http://www.heroesalliance.org