Dougal vs. The Magic Roundabout

There’s this British/French computer-animated movie called The Magic Roundabout. It was originally produced in English in the United Kingdom, but when it was imported into the United States, it was completely redubbed in English AGAIN with a new cast and renamed “Dougal,” the name of the protagonist. The American version has an all-star cast including Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Fallon, Kevin Smith, Ian McKellen, and even Jon Stewart (yes, The Daily Show Jon Stewart). Despite this, the American version (not the original British version) is considered to be one of the worst animated films ever made partly because everyone was outraged that almost all the original voice actors were replaced and partly because of all the pop culture references that were added in. Going by the ratings of the original British version, everyone seems to generally think that it’s okay.

I’ve read complaints that the American version is also terrible because the story is stupid and boring. I haven’t seen either version of the movie yet, but I wonder if the story in the American version was changed significantly? Or is the story in the British version equally stupid and boring, but no one complains about it just to further emphasize how much they hate the American version? I guess I’ll have to find out…

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Speech Therapy: How General Hein Destroyed Square Pictures

Transcript:

Brad Bird once said that while he was directing The Incredibles, everyone told him that it wouldn’t succeed because it focused on human characters. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the first fully computer-generated, feature-length film to attempt photorealistic 3D animation, had just lost $94 million and was blamed for the closing of its production studio Square Pictures. People didn’t seem interested in seeing the not-quite-human-looking characters CG could produce. Of course, Bird ignored these concerns, knowing that the species of the characters had nothing to do with the quality of their story or the success of a film. Final Fantasy was no exception.

Spirits Within tells the story of Aki Ross, a scientist in the post-apocalyptic near future. Phantoms, an alien species of energy beings invisible to the naked eye, have invaded Earth, killing every living thing they touch. Dr. Ross and her mentor Dr. Sid hope to stop them by creating an energy wave with just the right form and frequency to cancel out the aliens. They also hope to cure Aki, who has been infected with a particle of alien matter, a condition that is usually fatal. For the moment, a chest plate designed by Dr. Sid is keeping her alive by containing the alien infestation safely inside her.

Dr. Sid is a famous scientist known for discovering that humans and other living things contain within them the same energy that phantoms are made of. He’s also found a way to harness this energy for weapons, shields, and technologies used to combat the phantoms. His discoveries aren’t without controversy though. He refers to the energies in living things and phantoms as spirits, and while he has no evidence to support it, he believes the Earth has a spirit, too.

General Hein, the leader of the United States Military Force and the antagonist of Spirits Within, seeks to prevent Aki and Sid’s research. He believes that humanity’s best hope of destroying the phantoms is to fire a newly developed weapon known as the Zeus Cannon at their nest, the Leonid meteor the aliens arrived on. Despite Dr. Sid’s evidence that firing the cannon at the meteor’s crater will be ineffective against the phantoms, Hein won’t be convinced otherwise. He suspects that Aki has carried the alien within her for so long that it’s now influencing her actions. She should be in jail, not pursuing research that could be just what the enemy wants.

On the surface, nothing seems wrong with Spirits Within’s story, which may be why filmmakers, fans, and critics have offered so many alternative explanations for the film’s failure. Some say it was wrongly marketed to Final Fantasy and action movie fans. Others say it was over budget. The story, with its mix of spirituality and science, was contrived and confusing for Western audiences. The poorly written dialog was delivered through stereotypical characters voiced by lackluster actors. It was an original, science-fiction movie for a mature audience in a market traditionally associated with children’s entertainment. The film emphasized the technology used to create it, which distracted from the story and rendered it “as exciting as a shampoo commercial” featuring the protagonist’s hair.

Like the theory presented to Brad Bird, these reasons didn’t explain to me why The Spirits Within failed to capture anyone’s attention beyond its stunning visuals. Some of these “problems” were the reasons that I found the film so intriguing. Other films that contained many of these same flaws were financially successful, Avatar being a prime example. Within days of watching Spirits Within, I would forget what it was about, but it wasn’t because the story it set out to tell was dull or dumb. The film’s foremost problem is its major source of conflict: General Douglas Hein.

Conflicts are the obstacles that the characters face in the pursuit of their goals. A conflict could be as big as the protagonist having to defy her government to save the world or as simple as the hero’s side kick having a grating personality. Conflict is used to get the audience engaged in the story, but more importantly, it helps develop the world and its characters. Often the world’s physical rules and political laws are defined to stand in the protagonist’s way. Conflict also shows how the characters react to stress and how they interact with other people.

There are three problems with the conflicts General Hein creates. First, they’re hardly ever used to develop the world or the characters. For example, in his attempt to convince the United Nations Security Council to fire the Zeus Cannon, he asks, “Can we afford to wait for some crazy invention… that offers no solid evidence that it will destroy the aliens?” Much of the movie takes place in a shielded city where no one seems to be in immediate danger. The answer would seem to be, “Yes, we can wait for a technology that will probably work better than shooting a giant laser at a hole in the ground.” Getting rid of the phantoms would be great, but why the rush? Is there an energy or resource crisis? Are there less privileged cities that aren’t shielded where people die frequently? Are there flaws in the shielding? Are there parts of the world that aren’t wasteland yet? General Hein never elaborates, and no one agrees with him, missing the opportunity to add some depth to the world.

As another example, General Hein sends Captain Gray Edwards and his three-member squad to follow Aki and arrest her if she shows any suspicious behavior. Judging by the experiences of Edwards and his crew, I’d think that at least some of them would follow these orders. Hein doesn’t know that Gray is in love with Aki, but Gray must be a loyal soldier if he’s been entrusted with such an important mission to General Hein’s cause. Besides their knowledge of Gray’s feelings, none of his squad members have a reason to sympathize with Aki. She nearly got all of them killed in the first ten minutes of the movie, and all of them think Aki and Sid’s spirit theory is crazy. Rather than developing complex and interesting relationships with Aki and Hein, Edwards and his squad support Aki’s cause without question and show absolutely no loyalty to General Hein. They must think Hein is crazier than Sid and Aki and rightfully so.

This leads to the second problem in the conflicts General Hein produces: they are ridiculous. Hein wants the phantoms destroyed and has nothing to lose by allowing Aki and Dr. Sid to try, but he jails Aki and her companions and plots against them for no reason. He finds evidence that Aki is under the phantom’s influence, but instead of presenting it to the Council, he carries out a different plan to force them to fire the Zeus Cannon, one where he accidently destroys the city. He ends up destroying the cannon and killing himself in a spectacular display of stupidity. This may as well be a movie about the silly shenanigans of a delusional man and how his actions affect innocent bystanders.

The Council’s decision to allow Aki and Sid to pursue their research is rational, so why is this same council letting such an irrational man retain the position of a military general? It’s suggested that Hein’s hatred for the phantoms, ignited by the death of his wife and child, has blinded him, but that’s not an excuse to let him be a general. No one else thinks so either. Edwards and his squad obviously don’t take him seriously, the Council trusts Dr. Sid’s crazy theory about the Earth having a spirit more than General Hein’s evidence that the Zeus Cannon will kill phantoms, and even the major closest to him questions what he’s doing.

Finally, by entertaining Hein’s existence, the conflicts and questions that actually exist without a mentally unstable character creating them aren’t explored. For example, in one scene of the movie, Aki appears to attract the phantoms. General Hein sees it as evidence that Aki is working for the aliens, but otherwise, no one questions if they should be around Aki, let alone wonders why it happened. The audience is left guessing… or, worse, assuming that it’s only purpose was to motivate General Hein.

Dozens more questions exist that aren’t answered because the movie is too busy explaining General Hein’s convoluted actions. Why would such reasonable Council members want to jail Sid or Aki for believing that the Earth has a spirit or for using the term “spirit”? Why would a scientist that has invented everything that has allowed humans to survive think that he would be jailed in the first place? Why does Edwards and his squad want to associate with people who believe in spirits? Why not fire the Zeus Cannon and allow Aki and Dr. Sid to continue their research?

Aki’s journey to cure herself in order to cure the world had potential to be compelling until a clichéd antagonist was introduced as the main source of conflict. We spend so much time in Hein’s delusional mind that we don’t learn about the world that everyone actually lives in, and none of the conflicts General Hein produces motivates any of the other characters to develop more complex personalities. Final Fantasy didn’t fail because it had humans with 60,000 strands of hair. It didn’t fail because it told an original science fiction story or even because it had poorly written dialog. What Final Fantasy was missing was a relevant conflict that created a story with relatable characters and an understandable world.

Brad Bird and the creators of The Incredibles recognized that not all Spirits Within’s choices were the cause of its demise. The Incredibles would be a success and so would Beowulf, Avatar, and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. These films, among others, showed that feature length CG films could preach about protecting the planet, have photorealistic art styles, target mature audiences, feature human characters, and still be financially successful. The elements that made Spirits Within different and interesting didn’t destroy Square Pictures. General Hein did.

Booktrack is interesting

This is sort of outside my research into non-linear books, but I thought this was an interesting publication platform. Booktrack allows authors to create sound tracks for their books and then publish them on the Booktrack website. Readers can set their reading speed, put on some headphones, and read the book. It’s an interesting experiment and all the books are free so go try it out!

I found Starship Troopers: Invasion

Time to get excited about finding another rare film that I just kind of complained about… It’s an R-rated, feature-length CG movie based on an existing franchise, featuring guns, the military, and probably senseless sex and violence. It’s animated by the same studio that made Appleseed: Alpha though, so it looks nice… and it’s on Netflix. Aw, yeah!

A passionate speech to DreamWorks Animation that no one asked for

DreamWorks Animation is apparently in financial trouble partly because of the highly competitive animated-film market. Well, you know what, DreamWorks? Other people exist on this planet other than than young children and their parents. No one said you had to target them. There’s an entire market of teenagers and young adults that you and near every other animation studio have ignored for the past twenty years. Return to your roots! The first CGI film you ever made was Antz, a film that in retrospect should not have even tried to target children at all, a strangely philosophical and gritty film full of death, political satire, and dark comedy. Absolutely no one is making films like that regularly using CGI. There’s no competition! You could show what else CGI could be for, what it could do, what it could show when it doesn’t have to first and foremost entertain children.

I don’t need a photorealistic recreation of golden Angelina Jolie. I don’t need 60,000 strands of hair. Just because I’m over 12 years old doesn’t mean that the only way 3D animation will entertain me is if it features guns, stupid headstrong women, zombies, the police, a military, or a creepy, muscular man cutting his own arm off. I want to know what the space race in a binary planet system or on several inhabited moons, orbiting a gas giant is like. I want to see an unlikely hero, who looks very different from us but acts much the same, liberate his enslaved and ignorant species from an oppressive corporation. I want to see how a person’s acceptance of their differences and strengths that derive from them can save themselves and the people close to them. I miss the story about that ant who was disgusted with the oppressive world he lived in and succeeded in changing it.

There’s millions of teenagers and young adults out there playing video games composed of 3D graphics and dark stories or watching anime about psychopaths, depression, equivalency and fairness, the existence of god, notebooks that can kill people, pornography, and a multitude of other adult and challenging topics. CGI can tell stories as complex and dark as those found in video games and anime, too! DreamWorks Animation, step forth and embrace a brave new target audience! Nobody asked you for Shrek the Third or Penguins of Madagascar! I’m asking you for Antz! Millions of people don’t know it yet, but it’s what they want, too!

…Yup. That’s the story of what I do at 3:30 in the morning: write a passionate speech about stuff that will probably never happen. And I’ve been watching Antz… a lot.

Speech Therapy: Magic is Everything

Transcript:

I recently heard that magic is madness. According to one of the supporters of this literary theory, Freedomain Radio host Stefan Molyneux, the manifestation of magic whether it be in fiction or in reality exists only in the mind. Because “magic” in reality is described by mentally unstable people, “Magic in stories is always and forever a metaphor for madness.” Magic in fiction is the delusion of some character and “visible” to us because we are told the story from her perspective, but we, like other non-magical characters that may appear in the story, can distinguish it for what it is, insanity. The character is deluding herself into thinking that magic is occurring when in reality, she is screaming verbal abuse, babbling to herself, or performing some other destructive or crazy behavior as a result of trauma or boredom.

Stefan’s review of Frozen is what introduced me to this theory. Interpreted using the “magic is madness” theory, Frozen tells the story of Elsa, who out of boredom developed the insane belief that she could do ice magic. One day, in a fit of madness, Elsa hurts her sister Anna. Her parents hide her away and tell her to hide her insanity. Then, she kills them. Years later, Elsa finally gives in to her madness, screaming about ice magic and running into the mountains with her entire kingdom as witness. Because she is the queen and the town is hopelessly in love with her, they also believe in her ice magic powers and so must retrieve her before life can go on.

This theory is thought provoking and points out problems and ideas that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, but the profoundness of it is overstated and even distracting. Yes, you can interpret any work of fiction that contains magic as being about insanity, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to or should interpret the story in that way and doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all.

There are two ways to find meaning in a story. First, we can draw upon the story’s elements and themes and our own personal experience and knowledge to piece together a theory of what the story means. Our brains are very good at finding patterns in random data and images. Matrixing is the phenomenon where we see human faces where there shouldn’t be any, in complex patterns such as wood grain or carpeting. A collection of government documents, movies, and news articles has no meaning as a whole until someone concocts a conspiracy theory with them.

The process of finding meaning in a work of fiction can be similar to finding meaning in random patterns, data, and personal experiences. When we realize this, it isn’t surprising that Stefan should find that Frozen is about exactly the things he frequently talks about on his show: female privilege, PTSD, and child abuse. Frozen takes place in a non-sense world featuring a snowman who dreams of summer, a princess who pines after a man she just met, and a city that easily accepts that their queen has horrible ice magic. “Magic is madness” is only one of thousands of ways to interpret this chaos. A person who has experienced depression or anxiety is more likely to interpret Frozen as being about Elsa’s metaphorical battle with these problems and the affects they have on those around her.

Just because a work of fiction means something in particular to someone doesn’t mean that it will mean the same thing to everyone else automatically. If I am unaware of the “magic is madness” theory or that female privilege exists, then why would I consciously or unconsciously interpret Frozen as being about these things? Okay… The first time I saw Frozen was long before I was aware of the “magic is madness” theory, but I can’t prove I wasn’t unconsciously thinking about how insane Elsa was for believing that she had magical powers, how the stereotypical Jewish trolls signified the Jews who invented psychoanalysis, or what a self-centered bitch Anna was. …What a bitch.

The second way that meaning can be found in a story is to interpret it using a theory such as magic is madness. In doing this, however, the theorist risks ignoring whatever the author intended the story to mean and the artistic choices that were consequently made while advancing his own theory or agenda. A feminist can take popular video games and argue that they are sexist. A conspiracy theorist can take popular films and argue that they are propaganda. Anyone can take a film that has magic in it and interpret it as madness.

“Now that I know Orson Scott Card is anti-gay, I’m going to interpret all of his books as if they were anti-gay propaganda!”

If you try hard enough, any work of fiction can be about anything. Stefan argues that Frozen teaches young girls that they don’t have to work hard to be skilled in something. Elsa was born magical. Anna left her castle with little knowledge of the outdoors and survived. Both of them were born into royalty.

There are no guarantees that a child, or even an adult, watching Frozen would pick up on any of this though. From a completely different perspective, Frozen is about the importance of being open about who you are and of talking to those close to you about your problems. Elsa’s magic symbolizes absolutely anything anyone would want to hide about themselves out of fear of rejection or of hurting someone. This could include being gay or transgendered; feeling depressed, anxious, angry, or suicidal for any number of reasons; or admitting a lie or wrong doing. The filmmaker’s choices may have been to emphasize this message. For example, it isn’t important that we know whether Elsa or Anna know how to rule a kingdom because the focus of the story is Elsa opening up to her sister. From a writer’s perspective, Anna being able to perfectly throw a pickaxe, or neither of the sisters showing any interest in politics, could be seen as lazy writing, not a meaningful plot point.

The argument that all fiction that contains magic is about insanity is distracting at least in terms of Stefan’s goals. I think that the “magic is madness” theory is a valuable way to interpret fiction, but it doesn’t describe what Frozen is about to me. The most impressive interpretation I’ve heard using this theory was of Harry Potter because it was so well supported by both evidence in the books and in J. K. Rowling’s life. Stefan’s interpretation of Frozen pleads for stronger, more thoughtful writing more than anything. Because his interpretation was so distant from the surface story the film told, I wasn’t as convinced that the movie was about insanity. Stefan’s effort to argue that all fiction in this category can be interpreted in this way distracts from what I think he’s really trying to say. If indeed we are subconsciously being affected by these works of fiction, the authors who are creating these thoughtlessly written and clichéd stories are enforcing the illogical idea that irrational thoughts and actions will somehow make the world a better place.

[“What rules over us is bad ideas. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Bad, irrational, illogical, subjective objectivity…. The idea that we must learn kung fu to fight killer robots is a great way of distracting people with delusions of violence rather than getting them to think critically and oppose the bad ideas…. If you can get people to think that it’s a physical fight, then they go in unarmed to the real fight which is intellectual.”]

“Magic is madness” has its place among other theories and tools used for interpreting works of fiction. It can be valuable for finding hidden messages in a work of fiction and identifying illogical and lazy ideas both in the work and in life. What a work of fiction ultimately means, however, is unique to each individual as it is subjective and often determined by personal experiences. Pokemon can be a story about a boy with an absent father who was kicked out of his house when he was ten and consequently went insane. Or it can be a story about the comatose hallucinations of a boy who went adventuring into the cruel world of Pokemon training, fell off a bike, and hit his head. Or it can be a simple story about a boy growing up… and selling merchandise. It and other works of fantastical fiction are all of these things and more.

Talk at you next time.