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Archive for July, 2012

What do you get when you mix a rebellious teenage princess, a mother/queen trying to do what’s best for her country and her daughter, talk of a political marriage, a rowdy bunch of men, and magic? Well, frankly, you get trouble, but you also get Pixar’s newest movie, Brave. After months of anticipation, hanging on the hope that this new princess tale would present audiences with a strong princess fit for modern times, does it pass the test?

Brave is set in Scotland in what appears to be the medieval ages. Merida is a headstrong princess who would like nothing better than to practice her fine archery skills and ride her horse through the forest in search of adventure. But life as a princess isn’t so free; princesses have obligations to their family and people. Her mother, Queen Elinor, knows this and has been careful in trying to teach Merida to uphold those obligations, starting by just getting her to behave like a proper princess. Though mother and daughter haven’t seen eye-to-eye on these matters, life has gone on peacefully — until it’s announced that Merida must now fulfill her duty to marry someone she’s never met for political reasons. Unable to convince her mother against the idea, she takes things into her own hands and sets out to change her fate. But will she bring ruin to her kingdom by fighting tradition?

When I first heard the plot for Brave, I was instantly hooked. With a heroine who is not only shown to be skilled in archery fighting against customs and a plot line sporting phrases about changing her fate Before this story really took off, I couldn’t help but think that this could be something similar to Disney’s Mulan. But the movie surprised me in more than one way.

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

As you may or may not have picked up on from the plot introduction, Merida and her mother are at odds. Truth be told, my heart sank a bit at the beginning of the film because of this. “Is this going to be another one of those stories where a mother and daughter butt heads?” I wondered. After all, fiction has had a habit of throwing bad mother-daughter relationships in our faces a lot. Yes, moms and daughters may not always see eye-to-eye and some–maybe many–butt heads frequently, but do all the mother-daughter relationships in fiction have to be like that? We see lots of nice father-son relationships in fiction after all. Heck, often moms aren’t even a crucial part of fictional stories. So, when a mom character is actually present, does she always have to be shown as some annoying nag?

That’s why I was extremely happy when it became clear that the minds behind Brave had different ideas for this mother-daughter pair. In fact, although Brave sounds like an epic fantasy from a brief overview, at its heart, this movie is actually about the relationship between Merida and her mother. The dynamic between the two starts off looking stereotypical, but, unlike other stories with this set up, explores the relationship further. While I think we can all understand Merida’s wish to be free, she goes a little too far and forgets her responsibilities to others and how her actions affect them. Queen Elinor, on the other hand, is so focused on the customs and the responsibilities to be flexible and see freer alternatives. Thus bring me to my first surprise; there’s magic and a little action, but Brave is more a journey of Merida and Elinor coming to understand each other rather than a journey filled with fights and mortal danger.

Elinor and Merida are great female characters outside of this mother-daughter relationship story as well. As is evident from the basic storyline, Merida is a whole different kind of princess than the classics. She’s bursting with energy and independence, making her Disney princess predecessors pale in comparison. Queen Elinor is a levelheaded, well-spoken ruler who commands just as much (or more) respect from her subjects as her husband the king. Together the two make a powerful duo of independent women. And isn’t it nice to see a romance-free Disney princess movie for once?

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

So what’s the other surprise of Brave? While the basic story sounds epic, it’s actually on the lighter side as plots go. Pixar lightens the mood with a witch who runs a woodcarving business, magic that turns people into bears, and clansmen–er, actually the men in general–who largely act as comic relief. To some older fans who are familiar with Pixar’s work, this may be a bit disappointing. Some reviewers are saying this lighthearted feel is not up to the deeper stories of past Pixar films. I don’t follow Pixar’s work so I can’t compare that too much, but I will admit that the movie felt lighter than Pixar’s Up and Disney’s Mulan and The Lion King for some examples. Despite expecting something more epic myself, this didn’t keep me from enjoying Brave.

In the end, like its heroine, Brave breaks the traditions. Everything that defines classic princess movies like Cinderella and Snow White are thrown out the door to give way to a fun fantasy with female characters, relationships, and messages that get both thumbs up. Regardless of whether you’re six or sixty, if you’re interested in any of that, go see Brave.

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After waiting in a line that made it look like an opening night premiere, I have finally made it to see Snow White & the Huntsman at my local dollar theater. I think it’s safe to assume we all know at least one telling of the classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Perhaps the most well-known take on this fairy tale is the one done by Disney, full of cute animals, singing dwarfs, and pathetic women. If you’re expecting Snow White and the Huntsman to be anywhere close to that, abandon all hope now for this retelling is a dark tale brimming with action and the women at the front of it all.

Our story begins with Snow White as a child. The kingdom is at war and her mother dies, breaking her father’s heart. But soon enough, the king does find another love, on the battlefield no less. After a battle, the king and his men stumble upon Ravenna, a beautiful woman who had been held captive by the enemy. The very next day the king marries Ravenna. As the audience can guess, this isn’t going to be a very happy marriage and in fact, that night the new queen kills Snow White’s father, takes over the kingdom, and imprisons our heroine in the dungeons.

Skip forward into the future and Snow White has come of age in her grubby cell. Now she’s a threat to the queen, but before Ravenna can kill her, Snow White manages to outsmart her captors and makes a daring escape. She’s got to make it to the rebel army before the queen’s men find her. With that, a Huntsman is hired and this fairy tale really begins.

I’ll be honest; in general, the movie was just okay. It wasn’t bad. It was entertaining enough to pass the time, but not mind-blowing. After one viewing, I can’t quite pinpoint what all was lacking, although my initial instinct is that it’s the characters. Yes, the main cast was fairly interesting and likable enough, but there was no great connection to them that the best of stories create nor much great character development. It felt shallow at times. (On that note, for those of you looking for a prince more developed than that of the original, the “prince” of this film is only slightly better.) Therefore, while it was a fun movie to see, it made no great impact on me character-wise — expect one. The queen.

Rankin/Universal Studios

What do you do when you want to make a one-dimensional character who is defined by her obsession with beauty and her heartlessness interesting? You develop her character by exploring the why’s. Why is the queen in Snow White so bent on beauty to the point that she’s willing to kill for it? Well, in Snow White and the Huntsman it’s because she’s learned that beauty is power and has used it to survive in a harsh world controlled by men. As she reveals near the beginning of the movie, she’s seen men choose women, use them until they age or become boring, and then throw them away. She’s not about to be used like that. Thus, Ravenna learned to betray the men who were charmed by her before they betrayed her. It is through this method that she becomes queen.

But it’s not just beauty that the queen has. She also has magic which has sustained not only her most treasured beauty but makes her immortal, although not invincible. When Snow White comes of age and becomes “the fairest of them all,” her very existence threatens the queen’s magic. The blood of someone who was pure and fair gave the queen her magic and it can also take it away. For this reason the queen wants Snow White dead — she’ll have the princess’ heart so that she can gain more magic and at the same time she is eliminating a serious threat to her power and to her throne.

Rankin/Universal Studios

Insights such as these add tremendously to an annoying tale of women pitted against each other over nothing more than youth and beauty. Suddenly, the witch/queen who was jealous of an 8-year-old’s youth and beauty is turned into someone much more interesting and even sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic. The queen is cold and unable to trust others; she believes men will betray her and girls like Snow White are threats. She’s obsessed with keeping her beauty and youth because without it, she’s lost something she’s relied upon as her greatest influence and her magic with it. It was a brilliant move to make Snow White feel some sympathy and sadness for the queen.

As for Snow White, she is a much more interesting Snow White than the classic. She’s resourceful and a survivor, something that is best shown at the beginning when she makes her grand escape. Unfortunately, like most of the characters, there was something missing; after one viewing, I felt like her character lacked depth. Despite this, I still like what the movie was trying to do.

Snow White and the Huntsman is not perfect and in general doesn’t show much riveting storytelling or characters, but provides an intriguing and refreshing take on an old classic that adds interest to an entertaining movie. If you’re lucky enough to have a dollar theater showing it, check it out. If not, it’s certainly worth renting.

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When Nickelodeon aired Avatar: The Last Airbender back in 2005, it quickly became a favorite and has remained so for the past several years since. Now it’s 2012 and the creators of Avatar are back again with a sequel called The Legend of Korra. Having just finished Season 1, Book 1, I thought I’d ramble a bit about it.

First of all, I have to say that the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, did something so many people who work on action/adventure stories seem afraid of doing; presenting audiences with female characters who are obviously just as important and dynamic as their male characters. The original tale did have a male protagonist, but absent were those flimsy token female characters who sit on the sidelines. In The Legend of Korra, they didn’t let fans down. Not only did they keep the same level of quality in their characters but DiMartino and Konietzko  decided to make the protagonist of their new action show a girl.

Apparently, they had to do some convincing with some of the executives at Nickelodeon who were doubtful about how successful a female protagonist would be in an action show. Why? Because boys wouldn’t be happy with a show starring a female lead, they thought. Hearing this annoys me on so many levels. Girls watch and read fiction and play video games with male protagonists all the time yet boys supposedly can’t accept a female protagonist? Thank all that’s sane in this world, the creators stuck by their female lead, Korra, and a test screening of the show proved those executives completely wrong. (I myself have seen young boys crowded around a computer at a library, eagerly watching episodes of Korra.) It seems that the fact that The Legend of Korra has raked in an average audience of 3.8 million has slapped some more sense into Nickelodeon as they recently officially requested 26 more episodes, bringing the series total number of episodes up to 52.

As for Korra, I like what DiMartino and Konietzko have come up with. Certainly, she breaks the stereotypical mold. She’s headstrong, bold, and independent; Korra is a force to be reckoned with and isn’t about to be someone’s punching bag. In a smart move, the creators decided to make Korra the opposite of their previous protagonist, Aang. While Aang was gentle and more spiritual than action-oriented, Korra is aggressive and has much more trouble connecting with her spirituality than her martial art-inspired “bending” skills. Not only does this create protagonists one won’t have trouble seeing as distinctly different but it also avoids stereotypes for both genders.

The other thing I really like about Korra is her character design. She’s muscular and not afraid to show it. I have to say that in all my time of watching animated TV shows, I hardly ever come across female characters who are realistically muscular like Korra. When I have, the characters were muscular as a joke or to make them unattractive. Seeing a muscular female character who isn’t a joke is a nice change from all the wispy or unrealistically big-breasted designs and promotes the idea that muscle on a girl isn’t a bad thing. As one of the creators of the show said in an interview with NPR, “She’s muscular, and we like that. It’s definitely better than being a waif about to pass out. I know, I look like a waif — who am I to judge?”

Finally, I want to point out how the show has made adult characters a big part of the show. Often in shows with teenage protagonists, it seems the focus is on young people in their twenties and younger. The Legend of Korra took a different road, incorporating characters who are clearly established adults with family and/or a career. I think having older characters play a crucial role in the show gives The Legend of Korra yet another distinctive feature. Isn’t nice to see there’s life beyond your twenties for once?

That’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll be rewatching the first season again so, don’t be surprised if I talk more in-depth about it at some point. What else am I going to do while I wait for the next installment Korra?

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!!Spoilers for Tokyo Boys & Girls!!

Despite all my complaining about romance, I seem to read a lot of it. As a result, I’ve run into dozens of trends, seen one scenario done over and over, and observed how people portray romance, both the good parts and the difficult parts. Years ago, before I was typing away on Gagging on Sexism, I came across Tokyo Boys & Girls, a manga created by Miki Aihara, better known for her hit, Hot Gimmick, at my local library. Now, Aihara doesn’t have the best track record for making manga with particularly forward-thinking and healthy relationships, but I didn’t know that when I read Tokyo Boys & Girls. What did I think of it? I was thoroughly irritated by it. So, years later, I had thought to do a scathing review, but I had to stop my eager fingers. Upon refreshing myself with the story, I found it not quite as bad as I remember, but I still have some things to say about some issues surrounding the heroine and her romance.

The story opens with Mimori Kosaka, your average peppy and cheerful heroine who wants only a couple of things out of her high school years; to wear a cute uniform, become cute, and to snag a boyfriend. Education? Pssh! When have girls ever been interested in knowledge? Anyway, Mimori’s third wish just might come true because not one but two studs have stepped up as potential love interests. Yeah, I know. One of them is a playboy and the other one is a long-lost childhood friend turned guy-out-for-revenge against Mimori for unknown reasons (Haruta), but obviously, these boys truly like our lucky heroine. I mean, with guys like that after her, can anyone say, “jackpot?” So, there is our lovely love triangle.

All sarcasm aside, obviously this story gets off to a troubled start. This was one of those romances where I just wasn’t impressed with the potential love interests. Both are jerky toward Mimori at some point and Tokyo Boys & Girls plays right into the old cliché that the heroine ends up with the one that comes off as mean toward her initially. I also had a problem with why Haruta is not-so-nice to Mimori at first; back in elementary school the two had been friends and Haruta had a crush on Mimori. Mimori, however, only saw Haruta as a friend and was completely oblivious to his feelings for her and to add insult to injury, years later in high school, Mimori doesn’t even recognize him. This understandably hurt his feelings, but the way the story plays it, this makes Haruta justified for being a jerk. When Mimori realizes all this later, she feels she had been a selfish person to have not realized Haruta’s feelings all those years ago. I felt this was over the top. The situation Haruta and Mimori faced in elementary school happens all the time and while it’s not fun and feelings may be hurt, that doesn’t make the oblivious party an awful person and certainly doesn’t give the hurt party reason to be a jerk.

The other big thing that bothered me with this manga was a certain incident that occurs in the later half, when Mimori and Haruta have started dating. Haruta is still insecure about his relationship with Mimori and afraid that his former rival in love is actually still very much a threat. Propelled by these fears, Haruta confronts her about her feelings and her relationship with his rival. Unable to simply take Mimori at her word (or her actions) that she wants to be with him, he demands that she prove she’s really Haruta’s by having sex with him. Frankly, Haruta’s inability to believe in the relationship and his jealous nature made for an unstable relationship in my opinion, but this particular bit had red flags flying. Mimori is understandably scared by his behavior and rejects him. Haruta jumps to the conclusion that because she wouldn’t have sex with him then and there, Mimori really didn’t love him and would rather be with his rival-in-love. This paranoia and aggressive behavior just screamed abusive relationship to me. Mimori asks why he always has to be so malicious before running out. Readers are left with Haruta by himself, saying, “Why? Why do you think? Because I love you!” Riiight, because malicious behavior toward someone always equals love. He goes so far as to break up with her because she becomes a little scared of him after that incident, believing she simply has something against him in particular touching her.

I also felt like Mimori’s later reactions to all this is plain terrible. She connects her obliviousness to Haruta’s feelings back in elementary school to her more recent rejection of his pressure to have sex. She feels terrible because in her mind she’s been thoughtless of Haruta twice and hurt him twice. Mimori doesn’t do everything right over the course of the story, but that episode was not one where she should take blame. And after all, Haruta wasn’t thinking of Mimori’s feelings when he demanded that she prove herself by having sex with him. What does this say to readers? It reminds me of situations where someone is in an abusive relationship and they twist things in their own mind until they believe they did something wrong, and that’s the last thing I want to see in stories promoted toward teenagers.

The conclusion of this argument saves it from being completely rotten. The two make up, both realizing they were causing problems in the relationship; Mimori tries to be more honest with her feelings with Haruta and Haruta vows not to rush her with sex and never to do anything that would make her afraid of him again. Having them both realize their mistakes and having Haruta finally make it clear that he understands he did something wrong by pressuring her made me feel better about the story as a whole. I still feel it presented confusion and unhealthy messages regarding relationships, but it wasn’t a total flop.

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