September 29, 2016

Shower Thoughts with Frozen and Star Wars

Okay, quick question to start things off: are the Star Wars prequel movies still canon?

Well, a cursory Google search -- and requisite findings -- suggests that they are.  Apparently, it was only the Expanded Universe that got booted into the Sarlacc pit; I can’t say that I was a diehard consumer of that fiction, but I can understand why anyone would get unthinkably salty at the thought of it.  How many good stories in there suddenly lose their impact because executives from on high decreed “lol, nope”?  Granted those stories still exist, so the sting is lessened; on the other hand, the fact that the beloved prequels are still in place can’t have gone over well with some.

I know it’s a little late to ask this, because the deal’s long since been sealed.  But I’ve been thinking about it, because Rogue One had its trailer drop.  I was in no rush to watch it, but I managed to get over my apathy and give it a look -- and honestly, I think it looks fairly interesting.  Plenty of potential, for sure, so I’m hoping it goes well.  Granted there’s a dark part of me that wonders why there needs to be a prequel movie about taking down the Death Star (and to a lesser extent its origins) when we all know it gets summarily REKT in the canon on three separate occasions, but whatever.  That sure is a movie they’ve got on the way.

With that in mind, I’m WAY more interested in Frozen 2.  For…some reason.

As unfair as it may be, there’s a stigma against animation -- and for some people (via Frozen) that stigma gets magnified a hundred times over.  It’s from Disney!  It’s animated!  It’s got princesses!  It’s full of singing and dancing!  It’s…not something any MANLY MANLY MEN MAN should ever admit to watching, let alone liking.  That would probably explain why instead of watching the movie while it was in theaters, I got dragged into seeing some ol’ bullshit instead.  Now I wonder if there’s a stigma against Frozen because of how popular it’s gotten -- because of formulas like “popular = overrated” or “mainstream = awful”.  It’s at least a possibility, isn’t it?

Still, I don’t have any problems admitting that I like Frozen.  It’s not my favorite movie, and a far cry from a revelation, but it’s got plenty to enjoy.  It’s not perfect, but it didn’t need to be; it manages to succeed despite its flaws, as any piece of fiction should.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize that Elsa might have snuck up from behind the podium and swiped the gold medal for Best Disney Princess.  At least for me; granted I didn’t have some strict hierarchy in place, so it’s more like I’ve only recently become more cognizant of the princesses.  That’d also mean that I need to review each princess individually…but I’m going to say “nah, son” to that for now and give it to Elsa.

Should we be worried by the fact that one company has control over so much of the entertainment industry’s heaviest hitters?  Disney’s slate of animated movies (and live action, too) are enough to leave several war chests bursting with doubloons.  Their acquisition of Marvel Studios gives them a hand in the cinematic universe -- and a hand in the profits, no doubt.  Lucasfilm is under their umbrella too, and now that Star Wars is back, they’re going to need safes the size of Australia to hold all the money they’ll make.  As the song goes, no one man should have all of that power -- so it’s a good thing we’re talking about a massive corporation that’s stood tall for generations, eh?

I’m the optimistic sort, so I don’t see Disney purely as a company out to mass produce and package entertainment as it would a shipment of Cheetos.  I can see why people would think otherwise, of course, but it’s not as if every movie they make is done solely by one person or dedicated cabal of peons.  There are still fresh ideas and creative visions that are infused into each new installment, thanks to the men and women sitting in director chairs and the like.  So it’s not as if we normal humans are getting duped into watching their output, even if it’s mainstream fare backed by millions of dollars (and financial expectations).

It’s only natural, then, that we’re getting stuff like Frozen 2 and Star Wars Episode VIII.  Even if neither of them can hold up on release day, the prospect of each is still worth getting excited about for now.  But speaking personally, it’s thanks to Elsa that I’m more interested in her sequel movie…with a caveat.  But I’ll get to that.

Like I said, Elsa’s my favorite Disney princess for now.  Why is that (besides the fact that she’s the most recent princess I’ve seen in action)?  Well, as a fan of animation I think it’s just how much she brings to the table with her artistic flair.  Whether it’s her royal attire or her snowy gown, she’s got an interesting design -- and her expressiveness really helps sell her personality.  Even if I was watching the movie on mute, I’d be able to know who she is and what she’s about by watching her move.  I can grasp her anxious and reclusive nature, and then grasp her emboldened (and sassy) faux-persona once she sings the infamous song.  I’m tempted to scour the internet just to build up a catalog of Frozen gifs.

But as rewarding as it is to see how she looks and the way she moves, it’s her persona that really drives my enjoyment of the character -- and my respect, in turn.  Yes, the core conflict of the movie is built on some easily-avoidable circumstances and contrivances, but it’s for the sake of creating a character with some serious issues.  Elsa is not in a good place at the start of the movie, and despite her supposed liberation, she’s A) just hiding behind a wall taller than any ice barrier she could make, and B) only inviting a host of new problems upon herself.  It’s not hard for me to read her as the villain of the movie, given that her exit from the throne helps put her kingdom in dire straits; still, I’m not saying she’s worse off for it.

So I guess that’s the clincher, then.  I like Elsa because she’s obviously, appreciably flawed.

Again, I don’t mean “Elsa is secretly the villain” as an insult, or as a way to say the creators screwed up their execution.  It’s just my interpretation, and something that makes me interested in the character.  More to the point, I don’t mean that as a way to devalue anyone else who doesn’t fit into my interpretation.  Am I going to suddenly say that Jasmine or Belle or Mulan are worse off because they don’t threaten to destroy their homes thanks to a refusal to face their problems and foibles?  No.  The Disney princesses are beloved for a reason, and I’d like to think it goes beyond “because Disney” or “because childhood”.

With that in mind, let me back up a bit and ask a question: what are the flaws of the other Disney princesses?  What’s Jasmine’s flaw?  She’s not used to life outside of the palace, so she’ll land herself in trouble by not paying a merchant?  Uh, okay.  What’s Belle’s flaw?  That she loves her father too much, or that she’s willing to step outside society’s norms?  Uh, double-okay.  What’s Snow White’s flaw?  I’m drawing a blank on that one, to be honest.  And sure, I get that in a lot of those cases the princesses aren’t supposed to be flawed.  At least not overtly flawed; you could argue that their purity and earnestness (like Ariel’s drive to see what’s beyond Atlantica) are flaws in their own right.  But maybe that’s the problem right there: with the implied affect being “Disney princesses = pure”, how do you wring a good character out of them?  I’d wager -- or at least hope -- that recent entries like Tiana and Rapunzel are trying to change that, but there’s greater proof of that than ever with Elsa.

I get it.  The world of fiction -- across every single medium imaginable -- needs good female characters.  I’m absolutely for that.  But I’m of the opinion that to get good female characters, it’s not just about infusing them with “strength” (physical or, to a lesser extent, mental).  It’s about achieving parity.  There needs to be a willingness to 1) allow the ladies to occupy whatever role you can imagine, and 2) let them actually progress as people, whether it’s for good or ill.  It’s bad enough that fictional ladies are often denied variations in body type, but it’s even worse when they’re only allowed to take on certain positions in a story.  Disney’s had some infamous villainesses before -- Ursula and Maleficent spring to mind immediately -- so it’s not as if it’s a lost cause to expect more from our stories.

Granted it’s not like I’m saying “we need more female villains or anti-heroes” out there.  Pardon me for sounding unreasonable, but what I want most is to have female (and male!) characters that actually have character.  Part of that means taking them to places that are unexpected or uncomfortable. Another part of that can very easily involve showing how they change over time.  For me, Elsa ticks a lot of boxes -- which is why I can appreciate Frozen, and maybe appreciate it more than when I first saw it.

So next question: do I feel the same way about the latest additions to the Star Wars canon?

I thought that The Force Awakens was an okay movie.  For the record, that’s not a begrudging okay, as in “Ugh, I guess it was all right.”  It’s more like “Hey, that wasn’t bad.  It was pretty all right.”  It had some weak points, but I’d be a real bastard if I didn’t say that it had some strong suits -- most of them tied to newcomers like Rey, Poe, Finn, and Kylo Ren.  I’ve seen a range of reactions -- including this hefty post from Film Crit Hulk on why the movie didn’t work for him -- but I’m taking a firm stance of…uh, neutrality.  People aren’t wrong for liking it OR hating it.  There’s enough evidence for both; besides, I suspect that the core part of any nerd experience is using the internet to argue about Star Wars, so have at it without me.

But getting back on topic, I’m more excited for -- or rather interested in -- Episode VIII than Rogue One.  That’s not to devalue Rogue One, AKA a movie I haven’t seen yet; still, I think it’s a strange choice to go from the first chapter of a brand new story to a completely different book altogether.  Plus, The Force Awakens already did its job and cast out its hook; how much longer am I going to have to wait to see more Poe Dameron?  Too long, thanks to Rogue One.  Though it could mean that this movie will have setup for that movie down the line.  Who knows?

In any case, we’ve got Rey long since established in the canon and the pop culture world.  And yeah, part of that “establishment” means arguments about whether or not she’s a dreaded Mary Sue; I can see why people argue as such, but I don’t agree with that assessment.  I didn’t even when the movie first made the rounds.  Even if Rey’s not my favorite of the “new challengers”, she’s still pretty solid all around. 

Like I said before, it would’ve been easy -- if not expected -- to just make her a generic action girl and be done with it, but they gave her an actual personality, a range of emotions, and the ability to not instantly win any struggle she runs into.  Remember, she may have that stick of hers at the start, but she still has to scrape out a victory against multiple goons at once.  Lesser fare would have had her be “badass” and dispatch them without a second thought.  Luckily, TFA isn’t exactly lesser fare.

Based on her position in the new canon, it’s pretty obvious that Rey’s a central figure.  She has burgeoning Force powers; she’s inherited Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber; there are mysteries surrounding her birth and family; she’ll have to deal with Kylo Ren and his quest for a salty runback at some point.  Whatever happens from here on out rides on the shoulders of Rey (and Daisy Ridley, though her acting chops have already shown that she’s got the touch).  Not an enviable position to be in, but understandable.  And it’s no lost cause, either.  Rey has her role, and at a base level it’s got more potential than the standard (or maybe stereotypical) Disney princess fare.

So why do I like Rey less than Elsa?  That’s a good question, and one I’ve been struggling with for a while now.  Maybe it’s just because of a natural handicap; Daisy Ridley can do a lot to sell the character, but compared to the variability and volatility of animation, she can only do so much (unless she decides to pick up a few tricks from Clayface).  On the other hand, I think it has more to do with the core of each character instead of superficial differences.  Though if we’re being honest?  Elsa’s hair (in either style) > Rey’s hair.  Three mini hair buns?  Wassup with that?

To be fair, it’s not as if either Elsa or Rey are the most complex characters in the history of film.  Even so, I feel like there’s more going on with the former than the latter.  No one can accuse Rey of being a bland stand-in (at least I hope not), given that she’s got desires like seeing her family again.  And if we go by the “good characters have well-defined flaws” rule, then I’d wager that the Star Wars swordswoman can provide.  Despite her resilience, she’s afraid to take all of the steps necessary to get what she wants.  Rather than make an effort to search the universe for her family (which to be fair would be a hell of an undertaking), she thinks that the best course of action is to sit tight on a desert planet…well, that, and refuse to try and make a better life for herself.

And when she gets the biggest call of a lifetime -- to accept the lightsaber and become more than a sand-shrouded scavenger -- she freaks out at the sight of a sudden vision and runs as fast as her legs will take her.  I can’t say I blame her for bailing out at Mach speed, but it feeds into flaws that make her more interesting as a character.  Physically or mentally, she’s not some invincible badass; she’s a human (or humanoid, given the canon) that’s trying to make her way in the universe.

And that’s fine.  It’s perfectly okay.  And yet…for me, it’s not enough.

It’s not like I’m about to strip Rey of any credibility or honors she’s earned.  It’s just that the essence of her character isn’t enough to outstrip Elsa.  TFA has some good stuff going for it, to be sure, but it’s still a fairly simplistic and straightforward affair -- by design, no doubt.  Granted you could say the same thing about Frozen, since it doubled-down on the expected Disney fare with the other princess, Anna; then again, the fact that they even had two princesses meant that they were willing to take things up a step.

But again, it’s the core that sets these two apart.  Elsa’s potential (if not locked-in) role as the villain is intriguing.  And even if you don’t read her as the villain, it’s not hard to see the other aspects of her character: the weight of her responsibilities, the expectations shackled around her neck, the terror that forces her to freeze out everyone around her, etc.  Comparatively, what’s Rey got?  She has her struggles too, but they’re not as pronounced or as critical to our understanding of her character.  She wasn’t supposed to be, considering the nature of her story; while you can’t blame her for coming out the way she did, it’s almost a case of her losing just by stepping up to the starting line.

There is a caveat to all of my babbling, though.  Here’s the thing: even if I think Elsa’s in a better place because of her core character, I think that Rey’s in a better place because of her prospects.  Or, alternatively: I can see Frozen 2 being a disaster a lot more readily than Episode VIII.

By the end of Frozen, Elsa’s story is basically over.  She has control over her powers (because of love…because shut up), which takes away one of the biggest cruxes of her character.  She brings warm weather back to her kingdom, she’s welcomed by her sister and subordinates, and she’s ready to rule as a kindly monarch.  Where do you go from there?  I can think of a few ways -- pulling a Batman v. Superman and exploring the ramifications of having a superhuman in the midst…only told competently -- but that depends on Disney’s willingness to do what’s best for the story.

Would the House of Mouse bring in the best people so they can tell the best tale imaginable?  My heart says yes, but my mind’s not so certain.  Merely the fact that we’re getting a Frozen 2 after such a conclusive ending raises some red flags -- like it’s not an artistic endeavor, but a chance to wring more money out of a product that’s already made some serious cash.  I’m willing to put my faith in the company, but the pressure to reap box office rewards (and merchandising profits) has to be a factor.  Will they phone it in?  Probably not, but there are two issues.  First off, how are we so sure that Frozen 2 will push the envelope when vanilla Frozen still managed to follow a lot of basic Disney guidelines and its most relevant diversions were blatant missteps?  And second, how are we supposed to believe that the success won’t go to their heads when Zootopia had a blatant, clumsy reference to “Let it Go”? 

What if the sole reason for the movie is just to make lighting strike twice with “Let it Go 2: Let it Go Harder”?

So the advantage in (at least) one respect belongs to Rey.  Her story is most certainly not over.  Whether that was thanks to the influence of JJ Abrams/the “mystery box” or part of a grand overarching design, it’s hard to say -- but clearly the SW crew has something planned for the future.  Granted the reveal will never live up to what fans can imagine (I learned that the hard way with Street Fighter V: A Shadow Falls), but they can at least get damn close.  Plus, it’s not as if DA REVEEEEEEEEEEL is all that there is to Rey; her adventure has only just begun, meaning that the struggles she faces and characters she meets will help shape her from here on.  It’s to the point where I honestly don’t put much stock into opening the mystery box; seeing her progression is the real reward.

True, you could say that Elsa will also have a shot at progression in Frozen 2.  But there’s a difference.  With the snow queen, she’s going to have to open a door that’s already been shut; with the young Jedi, the door has always been open.  As part of the SW franchise, Episode VIII has the potential to follow the groundwork laid by The Empire Strikes Back and be “the darker second entry”; something could go really wrong for Rey, irrespective of any major reveals, and she’ll have to deal with that in a way that’s satisfying to watch.  That’s just one vague example, but it illustrates a point: is it even possible for Frozen 2 to be the darker second entry?  If you read into it, maybe.  But not overtly.  Not when you’ve got armadas of little girls to sate.

But who knows what’ll happen?  I sure don’t.  Maybe I’ve got it wrong.  Maybe I’ve got it backwards.  Maybe my guesses will end up being just that -- guesses, hypotheses, and predictions to be proven wrong by the time the first trailers drop.  Whatever the case, these are all my opinions, and I’m just trying to support them with reasoning; it’s the only way I’ll ever suss out why I prefer one character to the other.  And as such, I know that I prefer Elsa over Rey.  I’m not ashamed to admit it, either.  No one should be; princesses are pretty dope.

Let me be perfectly clear, though.  I don’t want either movie to suck, or fail, or lose out.  I have my preferences, yes, but I don’t wish any ill will on the movies, the characters, or their makers.  I just want the optimal state for any given story, regardless of the money, franchise, or baggage behind it.  Am I more eager to see Frozen 2?  Yes.  Am I writing off Episode VIII because of it?  No.  You can like turkey-flavored hot dogs without hating beef-flavored; it’s 100% within the bounds of the law.  So just enjoy what you will, let others do the same, and be happy that the world can give us some truly awe-inspiring flavors.

Huh.  It’s been a while since I referenced my love of hot dogs in a post.  I guess that’s a good a cue to wrap things up…and/or consider scouring the fridge for a fresh pair of franks.  Such is life.

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