Review: Disenchantment Season 1

disenchantment-netflix

In the new Netflix animated series Disenchantment, Princess Tiabini of Dreamland, nicknamed “Bean,” chafes at the royal responsibilities of making appearances, conducting diplomacy, and above all marrying strategically. She’d rather sneak out of her tower bedroom and spend her nights drinking and carousing than play the dutiful daughter at court, and as a woman in a pseudo-medieval kingdom she has no more control over her own destiny than the poorest serf. She is, in short, a mess. Her father, the blustering King Zøg, doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand her, and in any case he has a new family to worry about, Bean’s stepmother Queen Oona and half-brother Prince Derek. What’s a girl to do?

Bean isn’t the only one who’s misunderstood and doesn’t feel that they fit in: Elfo lives and works in a secret woodland enclave of candy-making elves (a sort of combination of the Smurfs and the Keebler Elves), but he’s the only one who isn’t happy with a life of singing, dancing, and cooking. When he makes his inevitable break and leaves Elfwood, he finds his way to Dreamland and interrupts Princess Bean’s wedding to the moronic Prince Guysbert. The resulting fracas brings the pair together–elf’s blood is supposed to be the key to immortality, leading to Elfo being made a permanent “guest” of King Zøg and his court wizard Sorcerio–and sets the stage for their friendship. Both are, of course, trapped in the castle one way or another.

The third main character is equally supernatural: among the wedding gifts, Bean finds a box that looks a lot like one of the puzzle boxes from the Hellraiser movies; opening it, a demon appears and proclaims that she is now cursed and will never be rid of him. Luci, the demon, was sent to turn Bean to the dark side by a mysterious couple who monitor his progress through a magical fire, but since Bean was already troubled (and gifted at making trouble) Luci’s influence doesn’t make that much difference, and the two quickly become drinking buddies. Once the introductions are dispensed with and the stage is set, it becomes clear that Elfo and Luci are the angel and devil sitting on Bean’s shoulder (sometimes literally to make it clear), with the naïve, kind Elfo encouraging her to stay on the straight and narrow and Luci enabling her worst impulses.

However, Elfo’s inoffensive nature is mostly just “nice,” and as Stephen Sondheim famously pointed out, “nice” isn’t the same thing as “good.” Being a Matt Groening creation (with Josh Weinstein), the world of Disenchantment isn’t any more fair or forgiving than our own, and as Bean finds her place in it, Elfo learns to cut loose a little bit and begins to understand that standing up for himself sometimes means challenging what others perceive as “good.” For his part, Luci never seems all that bad (he’s “TV bad,” like Bender), and comes to feel loyalty toward Bean and even that annoying elf. In a world of shades of gray, the all-black Luci doesn’t stand out that much. (The business of Luci turning Bean toward the dark side is left unresolved in favor of other mysteries during this season.)

At first, Disenchantment looks familiar: it has a family resemblance to Matt Groening’s previous work, from Princess Bean’s buck teeth, reminiscent of Bongo, one of the rabbit stars of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, to the gleeful genre parody, the science fiction of Futurama replaced in Disenchantment by fantasy tropes. The cynical (or perhaps just clear-eyed) attitude of The Simpsons is as much part of Disenchantment‘s DNA as the characters’ ping-pong ball eyes. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed “fractured fairy tale” spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Shrek will find themselves in familiar territory: much of the humor is driven by the incongruity of essentially modern people with modern attitudes living in a medieval world alternately full of magic and high fantasy wonders on the one hand and wretched squalor on the other, the emphasis in any given moment entirely dependent on what is funnier. Ultimately, the show Disenchantment most reminds me of is Galavant (R.I.P.): while Disenchantment is (mostly) not a musical, the sense of self-aware rule-breaking and lampshading of well-worn genre clichés (and tweaking the contrast between fantasy as fun escapism and the miserable reality of the middle ages’ actual history) is the same.

Thankfully, Disenchantment takes off on its own fairly quickly, and after a somewhat stiff first couple of episodes, I was fully on board. It helps that the ten episodes of the first season are tightly plotted: The Simpsons in its classic years famously avoided almost any serialization, resetting at the beginning of each episode, and Futurama, while more serialized, struggled with episodes aired out of order and the uncertainty of renewal and being brought back from cancellation (by my count there were at least four “final” episodes, maybe five?). Being a Netflix production with all ten episodes available at once (the series premiered August 17), Disenchantment can afford to carry multiple story threads forward without losing the audience, and its initial premise of “misfits hanging out in a fantasy realm” turns out to hide an intriguing set of mysteries.

But so what? Everybody is doing that with their programs today, especially on Netflix, right? More impressively, Disenchantment is able to do this without the cop-out of essentially cutting a three-hour movie into sections: each episode (or “chapter”) has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed on its own, just like a classic sitcom. It is only as the season comes to a head that we can look back and realize how subtly ideas and plot devices were introduced that turned out to be crucial, each episode contributing a piece of the mystery and its eventual solution one step at a time. Call it the J. K. Rowling method: like Harry Potter, Disenchantment takes place in a world made up of spare parts, but the plotting and characterization breathe new life into it, and what at first seems like a generic fantasy trope often turns out to have been introduced for a very specific reason important to the plot (the tone and general aim could not be more different, of course, but I stand by my comparison).

To examine one example (and a particularly complex one) more closely, consider Dankmire, Dreamland’s neighbor and the home of Queen Oona. Given the most attention in Chapter Six (“Swamp and Circumstance”), it is revealed that King Zøg waged war on Dankmire in order to force the Dankmirians to build a canal through their wetland kingdom for the Dreamlanders’ benefit. Zøg’s marriage to Queen Oona (his previous Queen Dagmar, Bean’s mother, being out of the picture) was the gesture that sealed the two kingdoms’ treaty afterwards. Dankmire and its people make for an odd hodgepodge of “foreign” clichés, fantasy and otherwise. The Dankmirians are amphibious, with light blue skin and forked tongues; Oona’s creepy behavior is a running gag in the series. All of the Dankmirians speak with an exaggerated Slavic accent, with Oona herself (voiced by Tress MacNeille) sounding much like Natasha Fatale. The Dankmirians are not vampiric, so far as we know, but making them sound like Bela Lugosi makes the comparison to the American-accented Dreamlanders clear: Dankmire is spooky.

But in other aspects, they embody “Oriental” stereotypes, particularly the Dankmirian respect for protocol: a scene in which Luci outsmarts some pursuing Dankmirians, repeatedly bowing to them and forcing them to bow in return, thus slowing them down so the Dreamlanders can escape, reminds me of the apocryphal story (relayed by Huston Smith, who described it as an attempt to discredit Confucianism’s reverence for rules) of a high-class Chinese lady who supposedly died because she refused to leave a burning house without a chaperone. In the case of the Chancellor of Dankmire, the resemblance to a Japanese head of state is clearer both in his visual appearance and his accent (I was reminded of the crypto-Japanese Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace), and a scene in which an inebriated Bean vomits on him recalls a similar incident between President George H. W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.

(A truly bizarre twist occurs later in the episode when the Dreamlanders fall into the hands of a pair of Dankmirian hillbillies, locals displaced by the canal King Zøg forced Dankmire to build: they are stereotypes as broad as Cletus on The Simpsons, but they continue to pronounce their “w”s as “v”s, making them a bunch of blue-skinned white trash Draculas. Like I said, weird, even for a fantasy program.)

None of this is to suggest that “Swamp and Circumstance” was written with racist intent, or even that such references were inserted deliberately, but that notions of the “other” from human history inevitably inform our fantasy worlds, perhaps all the moreso when modern references are freely overlaid. In addition to its general lack of reverence for the institutions of royalty, Disenchantment is more progressive than many classic works of fantasy (a gay relationship among the King’s staff is treated as neither a joke nor a scandal, and is hardly a plot point at all: it just is), but still begins from the starting point of the European middle ages as the default for the genre. I suspect that, as with George Lucas in the previously mentioned Phantom Menace, ethnic caricatures recur as character types because of their roots in earlier film and television as literal “color,” keeping stereotypes alive for their entertainment value even if no malice is intended. Making them into aliens or supernatural creatures may lend plausible deniability, but the implications can be troubling nonetheless. (On the other hand, Groening is from a generation of humorists who don’t see anything as off-limits; considering his reaction to the criticisms of Apu on The Simpsons, he would probably just conclude that I lack a sense of humor.)

Having said all that, “Swamp and Circumstance” is one of the best episodes of Disenchantment, and Dankmire is a richly-realized setting that I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a future episode. While I love picking apart the diverse influences that may have gone into it, Dankmire’s synthesis of those elements succeeds in fleshing out what starts as a simple foil to Dreamland’s “normalcy.” Dankmire also gave us one of the series’ funniest incidental characters, Chazz, a send-up of aggressively chummy waitstaff everywhere, appearing first as a (possibly deranged) spa attendant in Chapter Four (“Castle Party Massacre”) and showing up in “Swamp and Circumstance” as a passive-aggressive waiter. “I vill bring you vat you deserve,” he tells a temporarily teetotaling Bean.

Another interesting twist on a common formula is the show’s treatment of Bean’s relationship with Elfo. Predictably, Elfo develops a crush on Bean (“I like big girls,” the diminutive elf tells her at one point), and the show even points out the cliché with the royal scribe narrating their developing relationship with the words “will they or won’t they?” This is easily the most tedious subplot in the season, but it does lead to some sublime payoffs. Even as flawed as she is, Bean is pretty clearly out of Elfo’s league: there is an echo of Futurama‘s Fry and Leela, but I was reminded even more of Dipper’s crush on the older, cooler Wendy in Gravity Falls. However, since the story is largely from Bean’s point of view a relationship never really seems that plausible, and it’s clear from early on that Elfo is just the worst: beyond being a wimp, he is self-pitying and manipulative.

In Chapter Seven,”Love’s Tender Rampage” (another high point), Elfo’s face-saving claim to already have a girlfriend results in Bean sending the kingdom’s knights on a quest to rescue her. When they bring back the seemingly monstrous Tess (presumably short for “giantess”), Elfo just digs himself deeper and deeper by piling on the lies, a recipe for farce that delivers some of the series’ biggest laughs. Still, the season ends uncertainly, with the feeling that maybe there is something to Elfo deserving of Bean’s loyalty, if not her love. Characters change throughout the course of the season, and Elfo is no different, finding resources within himself and learning that growth is possible.

On the production side, the animation finds its groove quickly; the use of 3-D computer modeling with a hand-drawn “skin,” which worked so effectively for the sleek buildings and machines of Futurama, is a little disorienting when applied to the analog lines and textures of a stone castle, but the approach allows for some exciting tracking shots through the busy walled city that surrounds King Zøg’s castle, and later in the series there are some dazzling shots of exotic locations such as a city half-buried in the desert. There are some compositions that will stick with me long after the memory of the plot has faded as well: a shot of the mysterious couple who unleashed Luci, alone in their oversized lair, reminds me of the early episodes of Adventure Time and the weirdly enticing atmosphere that show spun out of emptiness and slabs of raw color.

Many of the voices are familiar from Futurama, including regulars MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Billy West. King Zøg, voiced by DiMaggio, sounds like a mixture of Bluto with a little of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, appropriate for a character who is basically a medieval Archie Bunker (it’s a credit to DiMaggio that for an actor with such a distinctive voice, I didn’t hear Zøg and immediately think, “Hey, that’s Bender!”). Abbi Jacobson plays Bean, and, appropriately enough for the show’s emotional center, she comes off as a normal person. Nat Faxon’s Elfo is appropriately a bit more “cartoony,” and Eric André’s Luci is chill to the point of being deadpan. Among numerous others, I should also single out Matt Berry, who is perfect as Guysbert’s younger brother Prince Merkimer, a swaggering, self-important dufus definitely in the Zapp Brannigan mold (he goes through some changes, too, but I won’t spoil that development–suffice it to say that his subplot is another example of the show’s serialization: no reset button between episodes!).

Finally, Mark Mothersbaugh provides a whirling brass band theme song that smartly captures the show’s irreverent approach to its predecessors. It’s true that many stories have deconstructed fantasy tropes before, to the point that it can be considered a genre unto itself, but the tight plotting and secret warmth that lies beneath Disenchantment’s crusty exterior prove that there are still new stories to be told within it.

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Review: Shin Godzilla

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By now it is commonplace to observe that apocalypse figures so largely in Japanese science fiction because Japan is literally a post-apocalyptic society: the many scenes of civilians evacuating their homes or running from disasters in Japanese cinema are drawn from cultural memory, and frequently add pathos and potency to premises that might seem silly if the focus wasn’t kept so clearly on the people they affect. Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence), the first of a new series starring the venerable monster, keeps the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki front and center, along with echoes of 9/11 and the Fukushima meltdown. Written and directed by Hideaki Anno, it’s not quite as somber as Gareth Edwards’ American Godzilla of 2014, but it’s a serious film: there is none of the kid-friendly pro-wrestling action of the Showa series or the overstuffed craziness of the last Japanese Godzilla, 2004’s Final Wars. The only friendly-yet-sinister aliens in Shin Godzilla are the Americans who promise military aid when Godzilla lays waste to Tokyo, but with strings attached; and will their proposed solution be worse than Godzilla himself?

Shin Godzilla‘s tone is dry, sometimes documentary-like, complete with captions identifying speaking characters (almost entirely professionals: politicians, scientists, military, and first responders) and found footage. The approach is fitting for the story, which centers on an aspiring pol named Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) who fights against both the sclerotic bureaucracy of Japanese government (so concerned with adhering to protocol and passing the buck that little gets done, especially early on) and the machinations of the American and other international forces (whose interest in Godzilla includes the scientific knowledge to be discovered in his unique biology, as well as the economic and military leverage they can exert over Japan).

Yaguchi, young and headstrong, assembles a team of “lone wolves” from all disciplines to stop Godzilla, and their work as a team of equals is an obvious contrast to the hidebound cabinet surrounding the Prime Minister (Ren Ohsugi). Numerous montages of Yaguchi’s team in action borrow the language of low-angle shots, quick cuts, and wicked guitar riffs seen in commercials for businesses that sell “solutions.” The film is thus essentially a procedural, following a combination of political, military, and scientific campaigns, part The War Room and part Apollo 13. The older generation of politicians is represented as well-meaning but too set in their ways to effect much change, and change is what is needed: to stop Godzilla, and to solve the larger problem of Japan’s cultural and economic stagnation. The Americans (including a Japanese-American aide played by Satomi Ishihara) are not portrayed as harshly as, say, the Americans in Joon Ho Bong’s brilliant Korean monster movie The Host, but the Japanese view of America as perpetually occupying or dominating Japan is made quite clear (“The post-war goes on forever,” Yaguchi observes at one point).

Even the naming rights to the monster take on international dimensions: one of the few moments of comic relief involves the difference between the Japanese name “Gojira” and the Americanized “Godzilla,” a sometimes-contentious subject among fans. And speaking of unintentional comedy, Shin Godzilla‘s occasional forays into English dialogue are . . . idiosyncratic, to say the least (one American scientist casually drops “Our nuclear wisdom will be mankind’s savior” into a conversation, which got a few chuckles, from me at least).

That dry tone makes the scenes of destruction all the more shocking when they do occur. Godzilla’s arrival begins with a mysterious eruption in Tokyo Bay that closes down an underwater tunnel and sends geysers of steam skyward. After a series of inconclusive committee meetings, a huge (and supremely weird) amphibious animal appears and waddles on to land, plowing through a river full of boats and streets full of cars, pushing them out of the way as if they were toys. The reassuring evaluation by scientific consultants (as well as the extended treatment of Godzilla’s radioactive metabolism) show the influence of Darren Naish and other “speculative biologists,” if only to tweak their assumptions: the amphibious creature could never support its weight on land . . . until it does. A creature of its size would be unable to metabolize enough oxygen to live . . . unless it were a living nuclear reactor! It’s not even clear at first that the creature is Godzilla: this version of the famous kaiju takes on multiple forms, “evolving” like a Pokémon as it gathers energy.

In his final form, Godzilla has the familiar thick-legged outline (but with tiny, tyrannosaur-like arms and a long tail), but his hide is creased with red lines where he glows from within, giving him a demonic, flayed appearance. Finish the design off with beady, inexpressive eyes (“like a doll’s eyes”) and you have a terrifying (and fantastically huge) take on the character, a perfect update of the original Godzilla‘s vision of the monster as enigmatic, unknowable being and force of nature. Extrapolating on the creature’s radioactive origin and fiery breath, Anno comes up with some truly devastating applications, including focused beams (from Godzilla’s mouth and dorsal spines) that are more like lasers than flame-throwers. The result of Godzilla unleashing this force in the middle of Tokyo at night makes for a tense and unnervingly one-sided battle against military helicopters. The resulting irradiation of parts of the city, and the serious issues of when and how to evacuate civilians, raise echoes of the long displacement that followed the tidal wave and meltdown in Fukushima (like the scenes of evacuating crowds, clips of civilians in long-term shelters strike a deeper chord than they might if they only sprang from the screenwriter’s imagination).

As far as the production goes, Shin Godzilla has the most seamless mixture of CGI and practical effects I have yet seen, comparable only to Edwards’ film (and for the record, Anno isn’t nearly as stingy with footage of the monster as Edwards was); the sound design puts viewers right in the middle of the action (particularly in the theater), and it’s gratifying to hear passages from Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla music on the soundtrack. Shin Godzilla is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.

Review: Monster, 1959

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

K. leaps into existence amid them all, shark-eyed, snake-tongued reality: misery given form, solid and undeniable and taller than Hell itself. Feathers like a bloodsmear across his thorax, claws lashing furrows in the ground. Gangs of teeth glaring at the crowd over his lipless slash. Everybody screams.

It sounds like science fiction, and in strict terms, it is. The plot is the most familiar element of David Maine’s 2008 novel Monster, 1959–explorers discover an extraordinary monster on a remote Pacific island, and after restraining the beast they transport it to America to put it on display, after which eventually everything goes to Hell–but the novelty of the story isn’t really Maine’s concern. Monster, 1959 is the kind of novel that applies probing psychological realism to genre material, finding unexpected complexity beneath the surface of broadly-sketched stock types. What Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love did for Freaks and its body-horror descendants, Monster, 1959 does for King Kong and the monster movies of the 1950s.

If so many of the alien-invasion and monster-rampage stories of the Cold War were metaphors for political anxieties, postwar social displacement, and the catch-all term “future shock,” Maine is concerned with re-literalizing those metaphors, making sure that his fanciful monster mash takes place in a world that includes not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, but also the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the eviction of Palestinians from newly-formed Israel. Maine’s omniscient shifts in focus from close-ups on the main characters to the wide shots of world events is reminiscent of the intriguing book Welcome to Mars by Ken Hollings and Erik Davis, which also shares Monster, 1959‘s year-by-year structure in making connections between seemingly disparate strands of history and popular culture.

In Monster, 1959, the main characters are the giant chimerical monster K., for “Kama ka,” the name given to him by the islanders who worship him as a god (but perhaps also standing for Kong, or kaiju, or in reference to the monogrammatic protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial); Betty, the white woman whom K. first abducts and then finds himself strangely bonded to; and Johnny, the square-jawed man of action and Betty’s husband/rescuer. In retelling this age-old but highly specific beauty-and-the-beast tale, the members of the central triangle (and numerous characters who enter their orbit) are given shading and moral ambiguity, and of course relevance beyond the single story.

The novel’s most winning creation is K. himself, and Maine effortlessly relates events from K.’s perspective: animalistic, responsive to direct stimuli, and without much imagination or sense of the past or future. Despite the limitations inherent in writing from this point of view, Maine sketches a believable (and believably mysterious) persona. It’s common for audiences to partially identify with King Kong or Godzilla, but Maine is interested in what it would really feel like to be such a creature. While there is a fair amount of action in the story (“some sci-fi monster violence,” as the MPAA would have it), for all his size and power, K. is not the bloodthirsty predator one might expect; in fact, he’s a vegetarian. K.’s reactions to the humans invading his domain, the strange effect that Betty and her singing have on him, and his confusion at the series of entrapments and enclosures that he endures convey both how alien K.’s mentality is, and how alienating the modern world is when seen anew. Like the greatest movie monsters, K. is fearsome but ultimately sympathetic.

K., chained and transported in a custom box car, drugged and put on display in one roadshow after another, isn’t the only character who is trapped. There’s Doug, the seven-foot-two circus performer whose freakish height has come to be just as much a prison, and to whom the duty of administering K.’s sedatives has devolved. “It would be falsely melodramatic to say,” Maine tells us, “When Doug injects K., he feels as if he is injecting himself.” All the same, he does become disenchanted and disgusted enough to begin passive-aggressively slacking off, a decision that makes K.’s dramatic escape from confinement while performing at Madison Square Garden as inevitable as the failure of Jurassic Park’s electric fences. Life finds a way.

Betty, whom K. abducts all over again in New York, is not just a damsel in distress, but a woman of her generation whose deepest urges tell her to “throw herself into” her marriage and to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt. This extends to playing along with their friend Billy’s scheme to take the monster on tour, reenacting her abduction as a modern Romeo and Juliet story for paying audiences, against her better judgment. Johnny, over the course of the novel, finds that his experience in rescuing Betty has awakened a taste for adrenaline and alpha-male displays of prowess, a search for ever-greater highs that is ultimately his undoing. Ultimately it comes down to sex in forms as polymorphous as K.’s own mismatched body. “By now,” Maine writes after a particularly perverse episode, “you might be forgiven for wondering: Are there any normal people in this movie? It’s a fair question. To which the only possible answer would have to be: Are there any normal people in the world?

Finally, Monster, 1959 is no mere pastiche or stylistic exercise. Like the best environmental horror, it’s a warning, with K., the troubled child of the atomic bomb and master of an island of mutated terrors, returning like a bad dream to the country that created him and had hoped to forget him. Just as in a movie, the monster may be dispatched, but audiences know the fears that created it are still out there, and the monster can always come back.

THE END . . . ?

Review: A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju

The United States has its share of giant monsters, most famously King Kong, but let’s face it: if you’re really a fan, you’ve probably looked to our friends in Japan and wondered at the range of kaiju (“strange beasts”) that make the Land of the Rising Sun their home: Godzilla, Gamera, Ghidorah, and even some whose names don’t begin with the letter G. It seemed like unless you lived somewhere on the Pacific Rim, your chances of finding a native-grown kaiju were pretty slim . . . until now.

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Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling, and Shawn Pryor have provided A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju to introduce some of the critters that call the Bluegrass State home. Just as its title indicates, Kentucky Kaiju is a bestiary, a collection of two-page spreads with descriptive text, a guidebook that populates its imaginary Kentucky with both creatures that fit the character of their home and a history that ties them together. The book features dozens of imaginative creations, from the reptilian, hundred-foot-tall Komodo Supremis to the “micro-kaiju” Mini-Mainframe, a super-intelligent mouse. It’s the kind of book I would often spend hours at a time browsing as a kid, and the creators haven’t forgotten the simple pleasure of looking at pictures of cool, larger-than-life monsters. Every page has some witty or inventive surprise.

In fleshing out the beasts that might live in Kentucky, the creators naturally draw on the native fauna as well as such regional staples as horse racing, bourbon, and barbecue, giving a local flavor to the genre (the phrase “unregulated country science” is just one of the many delightful hooks that sent my own imagination racing). There’s also a sly humor in many of the details, from the “kaibetes” (kaiju diabetes) that the insectoid Black Gnat contracted from its obsession with New Coke to the super-patriotism of Navigator Ace, a three-headed eagle who lives on red, white and blue bomb pops and listens to Garth Brooks between bouts against other kaiju.

Texant illustration by Justin Stewart

Texant illustration by Justin Stewart

Historically, many kaiju have represented the awesome power of nature or man’s scientific hubris; many of the creatures in this book are primal in their appeal, with connections to the still-untamed wilderness of mountains and forests. Some of these wild and powerful creatures are described as being contained in special wildlife reserves and isolated state parks, away from population centers where they might cause trouble. But for the more domesticated kaiju, the Kentucky they inhabit is modern and down-to-earth, with many of them making their homes in truck stops, pizza joints, and even a drive-in movie theater. And there’s more to life for these beasts than rampaging: you’d be surprised how many of them enjoy the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yet more are described as already dead, having perished in battle with their monstrous cousins.

True to the kaiju genre, many of the kaiju have become guardians of their particular town or landmark. Some of these heroic creatures were the results of scientific experiments (indeed, one of the threads that runs through the book is the attempt to harness or exploit the kaiju’s miraculous qualities, which doesn’t always work out as planned), or are second-generation kaiju that retain the good qualities of their unmutated parent animal. An example is Catdronius, defender of Battle, Kentucky, a hybrid cat-butterfly kaiju so gentle in repose that it allows children to ride on its back (if they’ve signed a waiver).

Catdronius illustration by Tressina Bowling

Catdronius illustration by Tressina Bowling

A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju is a lot of fun to look at, thanks to the loose ink-and-brush illustrations (by Stewart and Bowling; the companion text is by Pryor). The creature designs are inventive, mostly true to the spirit of the “rubber suit” monster movies that are a clear inspiration, and which leave enough to the imagination to inspire readers to come up with their own explanations for details in the picture. (Personally, I have a lot of questions about Convoyacon, the result of a sentient liquor-barrel mating with a train car; hopefully one of the promised future installments of Kentucky Kaiju will shed some light on that episode.)

Although not explicitly being promoted as a gaming supplement, I can see game masters getting a lot of mileage out of this book as both a colorful campaign setting or as a source of wacked-out monster ideas. As with those bestiaries and monster manuals I enjoyed flipping through as a young reader, Kentucky Kaiju is perhaps most valuable as a launchpad for readers to imagine their own stories; as with any “shared world” or open-ended mythology, be it the Godzilla series or the tall tales of the South, it invites readers to play along and add their own pieces to the crazy quilt laid in front of them.

A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju by Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling, and Shawn Pryor will be released by Apex Book Company (who graciously provided me with a PDF preview copy) on October 18. It’s currently available for pre-order.

Review: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

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Years ago, I mentioned to a new acquaintance that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a favorite film of mine, and after I convinced him that I didn’t just think of it as a kid’s movie (it’s an all ages movie–there’s a difference), he asked me just what was Pee-Wee Herman’s deal. Like, what is he supposed to be? I suspect it’s a question that anyone who doesn’t see the appeal of Herman (the alter ego of actor/writer Paul Reubens) might ask. Pee-wee dresses like a stereotypical 1950s kid with a buzz cut and bow tie, delivers corny jokes and catch phrases in a swallowed voice, and appears to live in a candy-colored funhouse. The best answer I could come up with then, and still, is that Pee-wee is a “man child.”

There are plenty of television shows, movies, and comic strips featuring children who act like adults: hearing seemingly innocent children crack wise like Borscht Belt comedians or swear like sailors may produce cheap laughs, but they’re laughs nonetheless. On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, Charles Schulz’s classic Peanuts and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, among others, featured children who made sage observations about the existential dilemmas of life or filtered the political concerns of the day through their own experiences. And of course The Simpsons has been making a case for more than twenty-five years that Lisa is more intelligent, sensitive, and mature than her father. Heck, in many episodes Bart clears that hurdle.

The comedy of adults acting like children is trickier, however (witness “jerk-ass Homer” in some of The Simpsons’ weaker episodes), easily veering into the cringe-inducingly maudlin or obnoxious. This is where Pee-wee Herman, as a character, walks a fine line, and his role has changed in the various films and television programs he’s appeared in. In his earliest incarnation as a character Reubens performed on stage, Herman was a child, albeit one with a naughty streak; much of the comedy (as I recall it; it’s been years since I saw the stage show that was broadcast on HBO) emphasized the contrast between his innocent appearance and the mildly risqué situations he found himself in. Being taken for a goody two-shoes just made it easier for him to look up girls’ skirts or deliver double entendres.

Obviously Herman became more family-friendly after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and especially the Saturday morning TV program Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but there was still a sense that Pee-wee was a naif surrounded by more worldly characters. His distrust of feminine entanglement has been a common thread through many of his vehicles. I remember one sketch from his 1985 Saturday Night Live appearance in which a friend confesses his marital problems to Pee-wee, trying to explain in a roundabout way that he might need to find someone to help relieve his “needs.” After Pee-wee offers a series of increasingly ridiculous guesses as to what kind of person his friend is talking about (“an evil mailman”), he finally gives up and says, “Gee, why don’t you just get yourself a hooker?”

As the new film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday opens, Pee-wee is a more familiar kind of man child, an adult (he has a job and a car, for example) who likes his life just the way it is and resists anything that threatens to change it. His structured existence in the idyllic community of Fairville resembles both that of Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show and Steve Carrell’s in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (fitting, since Virgin director Judd Apatow produced Big Holiday). The cracks begin to show, however, when he puts off a pushy travel agent (Pee-wee hasn’t left Fairville since he had a bad experience) and a flirtatious librarian (see above re: feminine entanglement). The real crisis occurs when his band, the humorously clean-cut Renegades, break the bad news that they’re splitting up because the other members’ lives are taking them in separate directions. Pee-wee is so distraught that he burns their picture and breaks his flutophone in half.

Enter a cool, mysterious stranger (Joe Manganiello) who, despite his bad boy attitude and good looks (he pulls up on a motorcycle and wears a tight tee-shirt like Marlon Brando in The Wild One) has a lot in common with Pee-wee. They both agree on the superiority of root-beer barrels as the best candy in the world, and they hit it off over Pee-wee’s milkshake, which Manganiello declares “top five, all-time.” Pee-wee gives Manganiello a tour of Fairville, including the miniature model of the town Pee-wee has built in his backyard, but Manganiello is shocked when he realizes how sheltered Pee-wee is. He encourages him to hit the open road, “break some rules and break some hearts,” and as an incentive invites Pee-wee to his upcoming birthday party in New York City.

pee-wee

Manganiello is playing himself, sort of; I wasn’t familiar with him, so I was in the same boat as Pee-wee (although he played Flash Thompson way back in the 2002 Spider-Man movie, so I guess I did see him in that). Manganiello is a winning and hilarious foil to Pee-wee, “cool” in a more traditional way than Pee-wee but eccentric enough to fit into Pee-wee’s world. The best part about his character is that his friendship with Pee-wee is genuine: he really likes Pee-wee and recognizes in him a different kind of cool. Later, Manganiello’s anticipation for his birthday party and his deep disappointment when he thinks Pee-wee isn’t coming are fertile sources of comedy. Like Pee-wee Herman, “Joe Manganiello” is a childlike character, a child’s idea of a rich and famous star who rides a motorcycle around the country and throws lavish (but PG-rated) parties for himself when not acting.

With a motive to leave town, Pee-wee embarks on his journey, and from here the film is completely episodic, and like Big Adventure it consists of encounters with funny characters in a slightly off-kilter version of roadside America. Pee-wee is first carjacked by a trio of buxom bank robbers straight out of a Russ Meyer film, and after he escapes he hitches a ride with a traveling novelties salesman. Later, Diane Salinger (Simone in Big Adventure) turns up as a Katharine Hepburn-like heiress piloting a flying car. One of the running jokes and a constant for Pee-wee’s character is that while he’s good-natured, he isn’t a Pollyana, and while we trust that the world won’t be unnecessarily cruel to Pee-wee, he faces enough zany setbacks to make him (and the audience) wonder whether he’ll make it to Manganiello’s party in time.

While this version of Pee-wee is a little less trusting of the outside world, he still makes friends wherever he goes, and many of the episodes show him being encouraged by his new friends or learning to his surprise that he can handle the rough world outside Fairville. Whether he’s caught in an extended “farmer’s daughter” joke, hitching a ride with a group of sassy hairdressers, or adjusting to life in an Amish hamlet, Pee-wee sees the best in people, even when it would make sense for him not to.

Like many modern reboots and revivals of old properties, this “comeback” is packed with nostalgic callbacks and Easter eggs, remixing an older story by sprinkling in familiar themes, character types, and imagery to summon up the old magic. Instead of the dinosaur-themed truck stop in Big Adventure, there’s a touristy snake farm; the criminal supervixens recall both the movie archetypes that director Tim Burton incorporated into Big Adventure‘s world and more specifically the ex-con Mickey whom Pee-wee befriended in that film; and the famous “Breakfast Machine” from Big Adventure is homaged in an extended Rube Goldberg sequence that stretches all the way down the street from Pee-wee’s house and encompasses every aspect of his morning commute (I was waiting for a joke to reveal that Pee-wee can’t leave town because he spends so much time setting up this contraption).

I’m a big enough fan that I enjoyed those references, but I’m glad to say that the film has plenty of original gags, and that most of the material works well enough on its own, even if you’ve never seen a Pee-wee Herman movie before. And the film is fast-paced enough that jokes that don’t work are quickly left behind for something new. In addition, Pee-wee’s desperate desire to please his new friend and make it to his party is a slightly different dynamic than the search for his stolen bicycle in Big Adventure; after all, there was no risk that his bicycle might not be happy to be found. Unlike Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself hasn’t aged a day: his voice is a little deeper in a few scenes, and there’s one scene toward the end where he looks a little like John Waters without the mustache, but in general he’s as timeless as the mash-up of time periods in which he lives.

Director John Lee (Wonder Showzen; The Heart, She Holler) captures the sincere but heightened tone of Pee-wee’s world quite well, proving his own surreal brand of humor more than compatible with Reubens’. The many comic performers in the cast are game and then some, and Dan Butts’ production design captures both the Norman Rockwell world of Fairville and the many different locations Pee-wee travels to. Musically, it’s hard to compete with Danny Elfman’s contributions to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the circus-themed Big Top Pee-wee, but former DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh (whose film credits have included scores for Rushmore and The Lego Movie) provides an enjoyably quirky score; the highlight is a slightly cracked Leonard Bernstein-style salute to New York.

To sum up, I’m probably too close to tell you whether this is a fans-only proposition, but as a fan, I liked it. It’s not quite on the level of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but since I’ve already revealed that’s one of my favorite movies of all time, that’s no great criticism. It’s streaming on Netflix Instant now, so I invite you to give it a try. What have you got to lose?

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: “The Gershwin Experience”

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Lisa Vroman, soprano
Rick Faugno, dancer/vocalist
Jeffrey Biegel, piano

I reviewed “The Gershwin Experience,” a concert with multimedia elements (including still photos and archival footage projected onto a screen) celebrating the music of George Gershwin, presented by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra with the guest artists listed above. Many of Gershwin’s classic songs were performed, as well as the complete Rhapsody in Blue and excerpts from some of Gershwin’s other instrumental works. You can read my review for the Eagle here.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Handel/Mozart, Messiah

I had the opportunity to review the recent performance of Messiah by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Chorus this weekend. The version they performed was the 1789 revision of George Frideric Handel’s work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. My review for The Wichita Eagle can be found here.

Messiah
George Frideric Handel, orchestrated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor

Janet E. Brown, Soprano
Barbara Rearick, Mezzo-soprano
Dinyar Vania, Tenor
Timothy LeFebvre, Baritone

Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Michael Hanawalt, Chorus Director