Epic

epicHow often do you sit down and watch a movie with no pre-set expectations? When Disney releases a new film, there’s so much hype and anticipation that it’s hard to do. With Pixar, it’s impossible to do. Audiences expect a lot from these animation studios, and they usually deliver. But there’s nothing surprising about sitting down, expecting a great movie, and getting one. Many times, it’s far more exciting for me to sit down to watch a movie for which I have no expectations–good or bad–and then be blown away by an amazing story.

That happened when I watched the movie Epic. I had to google the animation studio that produced this film because I had no idea who it was. Blue Sky, it turns out, which is owned by Fox Studios. Anyway, I sat down to watch this movie with my brother, who had already seen it and swore that it was hilarious. I loved animated movies, especially the funny ones, so I watched it with him, and yes, it was hilarious. But while I adored the sense of humor, there was so much more depth to this movie than I could have ever anticipated.

There are two issues that I always here in the YA lit world–a lack of diversity and strong, interesting female characters. These problems aren’t relegated to young adult literature, though they are very prevalent. These issues affect film, literature, and every art form imaginable. People are always demanding more diverse characters and better female characters. Well, Epic offered both of those things.

Okay, so the three main characters were white, but the fourth (voiced by the one and only Beyonce Knowles) was a strong, interesting, fun black female character. How often do you see that in a movie? Not enough. Tara, the queen of the forest, protects the forest from harm, regrowing things can start to rot and defending her subjects from the evil boggins. She’s a warrior that can defend herself, but also a caring queen who looks after even the smallest person or plant. She’s a great character, and animation, film, literature, and the world could use more like her.

Epic-2013-Movie-Character-Poster-5But at the same time, Tara’s character is not defined by her race or gender. Being a black woman is not part of her character motivation, or even an issue. Being queen, that’s what drives her character. Epic doesn’t try to hit you over the head with it’s diversity agenda. It reminds us that while our gender and race are a part of us, they are not the only things that define us. We are more than our skin color, more than our gender. Our experiences shape who we are, our relationships shape who we are. Tara finds her identity in protecting the ones she loves, and that is not shaped by race or gender. And kuddos to Blue Sky Studios for having diverse supporting characters as well, creating “leaf men” that are men, women, black, and white, proving once again that diversity is not important to fill some kind of quota, but rather a reflection of reality.

Another thing I really liked about this movie is the relationship between Tara and her captain Ronin (Colin Farrell). Where a major studio might hit you with a straight up romance, Blue Sky offers you something different but much more meaningful. Tara and Ronin’s history is hinted at–they were childhood friends and share a close relationship–but nothing romantic is ever explicitly said or demonstrated. They don’t kiss or say “I love you”, but they don’t have to. You see through their actions–their banter and self-sacrifice–that they truly care for each other. A+ for original character development.

Ronin’s relationship with the hero character, Nod (voiced by Josh Hutcherson), is also original. Nod’s characterization harkens back to the hero stereotype. Nod feel confined by expectations, wants to run off and do his own thing. But Ronin shows him the value in standing for something bigger, and their banter is pretty great too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the humor, though. Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Rec fame) is a hilarious slug with a snail BFF (Chris O’Dowd). I mean, Epic is just a win-win-win-win movie. I watched it three times in five days and it was just as great every time. When it was released, it flew under the radar mostly, probably because it doesn’t have “Disney” in front of the title. But it is a great film, with a lot to teach kids and adults. The message is great, the writing is entertaining, and the animation is good. Watch it and see for yourself!

Epic-official-characters-poster

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Inside Out

Inside_Out_2015_film_posterI have come to expect great things from Pixar; I think everyone has. All of their films have been amazing, from Toy Story to Ratatouille, each Pixar movie has entertained and delighted. That isn’t to say that some films weren’t better than others. Wall-E isn’t exactly the kind of film you watch over and over again, but you can’t call any of their movies bad. That’s a lot of pressure for an animation studio as it churns out its latest movie. But once again, Pixar comes through with Inside Out.

Inside Out is about the emotions inside of your head that make you who you are–Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. These little guys control your feelings and actions; they are what make you tick. This story focuses on Riley, a twelve year old girl from Minnesota, and the emotions in her head. Riley is a happy kid who loves her family and playing hockey. Riley’s family moves to San Francisco, which, as you can imagine, really sends the emotions of a 12-year-old spinning. Amidst the chaos inside Riley’s head, Joy and Sadness get separated from headquarters and lost in long term memory with Riley’s core memories–the memories that shape her personality. Now, Joy and Sadness must work together to get back to headquarters before it’s too late for Riley.

As expected of any Pixar movie, Inside Out is very funny. The whole theater I was in was laughing out loud, kids and adults. It’s very fun, but also pulls on the emotional heart strings. The voice acting is very good, starring Amy Poehler as Joy, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, Mindy Kahing as Disgust, Lewis Black as Anger, and Bill Hader as Fear. Every character is entertaining, and it’s very funny to get a look at the emotions in other people’s heads (stay for the first few minutes of the credits). And much of the humor is very clever, so it will entertain adults as well as children.

Inside Out - Emotion Poster Collaboration

The only thing I didn’t like was one of the characters who helps Joy and Sadness, Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong. I understood the purpose his character served in the plot, but he was too, too weird–like a pink cotton candy elephant. Even in the fun, imaginative world of Riley’s head, he didn’t fit with the rest of the characters. I’m sure the kids in the theater liked him, but I thought he was too weird and discolored the flavor of the middle part of the film.

But Inside Out isn’t just a funny children’s film. As also expected from Pixar films, it had an important message. The message may surprise children, but probably not adults. The message was that sadness has a place in our lives. While we want children, and adults, to be happy all the time and not suffer the pain of feeling sad, sadness is a part of life. And even though it hurts, it serves a good and noble purpose. It makes us sympathetic to others, empathetic to others. Because we have felt sadness, we can comfort those who are sad. Sadness also lets others know we need help, so they can comfort us. It can bring people together as much as joy can.

sadnessjoyLife is a mixture of every kind of emotion–joy, anger, fear, disgust, and sadness. They all serve a purpose. Inside Out is a must-see movie for children and adults.

Atlantis: The Lost Movie

Atlantis-The-Lost-Empire-DVD-L786936166095There are quite a few overlooked Disney movies—The Black Cauldron, Oliver and Company, etc. I can understand why some of these movies are less popular than Beauty and the Beast or Tangled, but sometimes I have no clue why these movies aren’t more appreciated. Maybe they stray too much from the traditional Disney story formula, or maybe the timing of the release was off, the main character was not a princess, or there were no catchy songs like “Let It Go”. Still, these Disney movies deserve as much love and accolades as Frozen, maybe even more. I’m thinking of one movie in particular right now, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

There are so many things I love about this movie. I love the main character, even though he is not a princess. (I have noticed that Disney movies with male primary protagonists are not as successful as movies with female leads, even when there are main characters in every gender.) Milo is not a traditional hero. He’s a bit of a geek, ok, a total nerd. He’s scrawny and awkward, but passionate and intelligent. And his dreams are as big as Ariel’s or Belle’s. He wants to find the lost kingdom of Atlantis, and sets out to do so with the greatest rag tag team ever.

Milo and Kida

Milo and Kida

In young adult fiction there are two hot topics right now—the representation of female characters and PoC (people of color, or minorities, or just general diversity) characters. This issue isn’t limited to young adult fiction—it’s relevant to every kind of art and media forum—but it’s trending in YA fiction. Atlantis, however, is a perfect example of female and PoC characters done right.

There’s plenty of diversity. Obviously Kida, the princess of Atlantis, is her own ethnicity. But Milo’s crew contains a Hispanic female mechanic, a French geologist, an Italian demolitions expert, an African American doctor, a redneck cook, and one hardcore old lady. When it’s listed out, this may look like an affirmative action crew, but it is far from it. Each of these characters has a unique personality not confined to the stereotypes of their race. Except maybe Cookie, the redneck cook, but that’s kind of the point with his character. These are characters whose races are a part of them, but do not define who they are. They are defined by their hard work and dedication, their intelligence and skills, and above all their integrity. These are the kind of diverse characters books and movies need right now.

Milo's Crew

Milo’s Crew

The female characters also refuse to conform to stereotypes. They are not damsels in distress, but they are also not masculinized versions of themselves. They aren’t perfect—they have faults just like the male characters—but they are all strong. Helga Sinclair can kick every man on that crew’s butt, but she isn’t just a tomboy or a girl out to prove that she can fight as well as the boys. She has real character motivations, and a complicated conscience. Audrey Ramirez, the mechanic, is just as strong as Helga. She stands up for herself, does a “man’s” job, but never loses sight of the fact that she is a girl. I think that’s why I love these female characters. They don’t deny the fact that they are girls, they don’t try to cover it up and be like the boys. They know they don’t have to be boys to be strong. They’re women, and they’re strong as hell.

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And then there’s Kida. She’s a warrior and a princess. She looks after her people and defends them, but her greatest act is not one of battle. Rather, she loves her people so much that she is willing to sacrifice herself to save them, and that is the real strength of the story. The good guys come from all kinds of backgrounds, but they are united by their determination to do what is right. They all have different strengths and weaknesses—which makes them a great team—but they are all strong in that they are willing to sacrifice themselves to save each other. And that’s a message worth watching.

Once Upon A Cloud

onceAs a child of the 90’s, it’s no surprise that I love Disney movies. As someone who also loves art, I adore the artists who work at Disney—Glen Keane, Brittney Lee, etc. One of these artists is Claire Keane, a visual development artist who worked on Tangled and Frozen. Granddaughter of Bill Keane, author of Family Circus and daughter of legendary Disney animator Glen Keane, Claire Keane recently released her debut picture book, Once Upon A Cloud.

Once Upon A Cloud is the story of a little girl named Celeste. Celeste is looking for the perfect gift for her mother, and one night she goes on a magical journey through the sky. When she returns home, she’s found the inspiration she needs to give her mother the perfect gift.

Claire Keane

Claire Keane

The story is very charming and magical, but the real magic was the art. Claire Keane used pastel to create the drawings—Celeste and her cute little puppy traversing the sky, meeting the stars and moon and sun and wind. The representations of these heavenly bodies are creative and fun. The pastels make for a perfect palette, and every page seems to sparkle. The images are simply beautiful.

It isn’t the kind of picture book that a child learning to read reads to themselves. It’s for the parents to read to the kids, though older kids won’t have a problem with the vocabulary. But all kids will want to read it over and over again just to look at the pictures. I’m contemplating buying a second copy just to frame the pages.

A page from Once Upon A Cloud.

A page from Once Upon A Cloud.

Emily and I were lucky enough to go to her book launch in Pasadena at Vroman’s Bookstore and it was so much. She talked about her inspiration, her work on Tangled, and answered questions. She also read her story to the children and adults there. The signing line was ridiculously long, a testament to the charm of her picture book, but even after all that time, she was still so friendly and sincere when we met her, doodling in our books and taking pictures. It was a great event, and I was so happy to see the event so successful.

I highly recommend the book for any little girl, though numerous little boys were there and quite enjoyed it. Even as a adult, I’ve already reread the book many times over. Once Upon A Cloud will enchant children, but also adults. It’s a brief but magical experience, and I can’t wait to see what project Claire Keane tackles next!

Celeste and the stars.

Celeste and the stars.

Into the Woods

intoThis holiday season saw some pretty big box office hits, including the final Hobbit movie The Battle of the Five Armies, the true story of Louis Zamperini Unbroken, and Disney’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. I went to see the Hobbit movie and Unbroken with my brothers over Christmas break, but Emily and I went to see Into the Woods in Chicago.

Before I go into any detail about the movie, I have to describe the theater where we saw Into the Woods. It was an AMC theater off of Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Instead of regular movie theater seats, each chair was essentially a spacious leather armchair that reclined so you could lie back with your feet up as you watched the movie. Every other armrest could be raised to form a loveseat if you happened to be on a date and need to cuddle during the movie. It was by far the most luxurious and comfortable movie going experience either of us had ever had. Regular movie theaters just won’t be enough anymore.

Top L to R: Rapunzel, Rapunzel's Prince, Cinderella, the Wolf, the Baker's Wife. Bottom L to R: Jack, the Witch, the Baker, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella's Prince.

Top L to R: Rapunzel, Rapunzel’s Prince, Cinderella, the Wolf, the Baker’s Wife. Bottom L to R: Jack, the Witch, the Baker, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella’s Prince.

But the only thing better than those chairs was the movie. The popularity of Stephen Sondheim’s musical gave Disney high standards for a movie adaptation. Things has to be adjusted, songs had to be cut, but the resulting movie stayed true to the themes of the original musical. And the cast was amazing.

The story combines several fairytales, from Cinderella and Rapunzel to Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. The opening musical number “Into the Woods” explains the motivations for all the characters. They each wish for something—Cinderella to go to the ball, a baker and his wife to have a child, Jack to save his pet cow, Red Riding Hood to bring bread to her grandmother, etc. Then a witch appears, who wishes for something herself. She gives the baker and his wife a way to have a child, so they set out to collect a list of items, a journey that crosses their paths with the other characters. Through various songs each character finally gets what they wished for, only to find that what they wished for isn’t what they thought it would be.

That is the heart of the story—that what you wish for isn’t always what you need or even want. Each of the characters learns this lesson the hard way, making it very anti-fairytale in some ways. The movie preserves this lesson from the musical despite the changes it had to make, which is why the movie is still good despite any changes.

Another reason why the movie was so wonderful was the incredible cast. Disney cast some big names in this film—Johnny Depp as the Wolf, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Meryl Streep as the Witch, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s wife—but these big names proved to be more than marketing schemes. Everyone cast, both celebrities and actors/singers from Broadway, proved more than up for the challenge of the songs. The songs are all incredible. (And who knew Chris Pine could sing??) Emily Blunt might be my favorite, but Anna Kendrick is also great, proving that she can sing classic musicals and not just a cappella pop songs a la Pitch Perfect. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for several days now and I still can’t get enough. Stephen Sondheim wrote amazing songs for this musical and the cast really did them justice.

If you haven’t seen Into the Woods, I highly suggest that you do. Even if you don’t like musicals, I think you would enjoy it. And if you’re a musical/Broadway snob I still think you’d like it. The movie made changes, but it preserved the heart of the story, and the songs are great. It’s a fun movie and I want to go see it again before it leaves theaters.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella on the steps of the palace.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella on the steps of the palace.

Year in Review: 2014

Emily and I at The Green Dragon in Boston.

Emily and I at The Green Dragon in Boston.

I can’t believe another year has passed already. I’m starting to feel old, and I’m only 22 (almost 23!). Last year around this time I posted a short review of my year—exciting stuff that happened (I graduated!), books I loved, movies I saw. I thought I’d do the same thing this year because, even though nothing as exciting as graduating from college happened, I did read some amazing books and see some amazing movies.

lovelyphotoI’ll start with books. One unconventional book that I absolutely adored was Lovely: Ladies of Animation, a collaborative art book featuring personal work by Lorelay Bove, Brittney Lee, Claire Keane, Helen Cheng, Lisa Keene, and Victoria Ying. I went to their exhibit in Burbank at the Center Stage Gallery and it was amazing. I love their artwork, and anyone into art, animation, or Disney should check it out.

sinnerNovels I loved include Out of the Easy by Ruta Septys, a story about a hard working girl from the French District in New Orleans. The writing was wonderful and the characters colorful. Another colorful book was Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis, an “Arabian nights” type story set in India. Both those books are full of very different cultures, vibrant and interesting. Another book full of culture is Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse. The culture in this book is fictional, but heavily based upon Roman and Greek culture. I am incredibly excited for the next book, The Winner’s Crime. And speaking of waiting, I waited so long for Maggie Stiefvater’s Sinner, a stand alone companion novel to her Wolves of Mercy Falls series. If any of you like Maggie Stiefvater or werewolves or hot OTP couples, definitely check out this book. All of these books are incredible, and if you haven’t read them, put them on your “to read” list.

The-Theory-of-EverythingAs far as movies go, I enjoyed the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which was not only a moving story set in World War II, but also incredibly close to the book. I also liked The Theory of Everything, the movie about Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. The acting was amazing. And I know this is not a movie, but I also loved watching ABC’s Once Upon A Time. It was a fun, fairytale adventure with lots of twists and turns and villains. I can’t wait for the next season to come to Netflix.

Me under a tunnel of books.

Me under a tunnel of books.

It is difficult, nigh impossible, to top the traveling Emily and I did last year, going to London, Oxford, and Paris. This year was not as exciting, but we did get around. We went to Boston, walked the Freedom Trail, tasted the marvels of Little Italy. On the West Coast, I also visited The Last Bookstore, one of the most famous bookstores in Los Angeles, and it was quite the experience. Emily and I are closing off the year in Chicago together, so more adventures are yet to be had!

I can’t wait to wrap up 2014 watching Lord of the Rings in Chicago with my best friend, but I’m also looking forward to 2015. Hopefully it will be an exciting year and bring about some changes. I’m still thinking about what my resolutions should be, but hopefully they are big and exciting! I hope your new year is the same.

Women Warriors

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

A recent comment on the post about Graceling by Kristin Cashore got me thinking about female protagonist. While I strongly agree with this post from the Disney blog about being a strong girl/woman, especially the part where you don’t have to be a warrior to be a strong woman, I was thinking lately about the role of the female warrior in society, particularly literature and art. Female warriors are trendy. It’s cool to be a kickass woman who can best a man in a fist fight/gun fight/sword fight. I’m not saying that these women aren’t cool—Zoe Washburne is the coolest woman ever—but simply being a woman warrior doesn’t make you a good character.

I find several main issues that compromise female warrior characters in literature, film, and television. One is believability. Films are the big culprits of this problem, pitting 90-pound petite beauty stars against 300-pound ex-football pros and having the girl win. I’m not saying it can’t happen through intelligence, training, or quick thinking, but when it comes down to a lot of the hand-to-hand combat scenes in action films, I don’t believe that a super thin actress only cast for her sex appeal can drop kick a heavy stuntman. Unless you’re Summer Glau.

Gina Torres as Zoe in Firefly.

Gina Torres as Zoe in Firefly.

On the whole, it’s unbelievable that the daintiest of women are the action stars of contemporary cinema, but another issue I have with female warrior stereotypes is that they’re completely masculinized. Women don’t have to be men to be heroes. They don’t have to be men to be warriors. They can be feminine, kind, gentle, and still kick ass when provoked. There has to be a balance between perpetuating unrealistic images of the size 2 female warrior and the counter image of the steroid-abusing muscular female warrior. In order to find this balance, I’ve examined two of my favorite female warriors from literature that I think successfully present the female warrior archetype.

Eowyn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Eowyn is lady from the royal house Rohan in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien based the Rohirrim culture on Viking culture, referring to them as “Vikings of the plains”. As a shield maiden, Eowyn is skilled in combat, proving her skill by killing the Lord of the Nazgul. (If you don’t know what a Nazgul is, go read The Lord of the Rings right now.)

Miranda Otto as Eowyn in Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's work.

Miranda Otto as Eowyn in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s work.

I’ve heard many arguments against claiming Eowyn as an incredible female warrior, most harping on the fact that she gives up her warrior ways to settle down with a man after falling in love. But this is exactly the problem with people’s ideas about female warriors. People think that in order to be a female warrior, all you can care about is fighting. You can’t fall in love. You can’t stop fighting. Female warriors have to constantly remain independent, badass fighters who are above love and peace. But that’s ridiculous. No one imposes that idea on male warriors. They’re applauded when they accomplish their task and settle down into their hard-won peace. But when a female warrior does this, she’s suddenly compromising her values.

People often make female warriors two-dimensional. Their only interests and skills are in fighting. They aren’t allowed to have emotional complexities. They can’t have insecurities or weaknesses or crushes. But in the title ‘woman warrior’, the warrior part is not the defining word. Woman is. Women warriors are women, and rather than their femininity being a part of their warrior character, their warrior traits are a part of their character as a woman. Women can be warriors and also be shy, gentle, cooks, bookworms, tomboys, mothers, insecure, brave, and anything else that makes a person a person. They can also love peace.

Tolkien’s message about Eowyn hanging up her shield and turning to a life of love and nurturing wasn’t that women don’t belong on the battlefield. It was that fighting is only valuable and necessary to preserve peace. After the fighting is over, men AND women must give it up to now heal the people and the land. Eowyn choosing Faramir, choosing love over fighting, isn’t a defeat of feminist principles. It’s the overcoming of her insecurities and despair to find hope and a full heart in another, which is what Tolkien wanted for every male and female character.

Hunter from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

The Neverwhere radio theater adaptation cast. Sophie Okonedo as Hunter second from right.

The Neverwhere radio theater adaptation cast. Sophie Okonedo as Hunter second from right.

For those of you who can’t understand a female warrior who gives up her shield and sword, there’s Hunter from Neil Gaiman’s book about “London Below”, a magical realm beneath London that sucks in normal guy Richard Mayhew. Richard finds himself caught up in a quest to help Door, a girl from a family gifted in creating openings wherever they want. To help them on their quest, Door enlists the help of Hunter, a woman famed throughout the land for hunting and killing the most dangerous beasts in the world. Hunter is not a 5’4”, 90-pound actress cast for her smoldering eyes. Neither is she a deep-voiced, overly muscular woman from the 1936 German Olympic team. She is an athletic, strong, determined, smart woman who has built her skill and reputation through experience and hard work. She is good at what she does, better than any man at what she does, but she is both completely believable and uncompromising.

Gaiman doesn’t use her to beat the reader over the head with the idea that woman can or must be warriors. He doesn’t use her as a politic or social statement. Hunter just is. She does what she does as a character not because Gaiman is making a point, but because she is serving the story. Hunter is not perfect. She’s has severe flaws, which make her interesting, realistic, and complete as a character. She is just another character in the book, equal in status to Richard, Door, and the other characters. The book isn’t all about her just because she’s a female warrior. She isn’t better than the other character’s because she’s a female warrior. Being a woman warrior doesn’t make her special at all, which is why it is so special. Gaiman treats Hunter like a normal character, like being a female warrior is no different than being any other character, which is why I like Hunter so much.

Wonder Woman in the New 52 by Jim Lee.

Wonder Woman in the New 52 by Jim Lee.

I love strong female characters. I love women who kick ass. Female warriors are some of my favorite characters in all of literature—film, television, and comics included. But I hate the stereotypes that often go along with these characters. Yes, they can be independent, but that doesn’t mean they have to shut themselves off from love. Yes, they can be strong, but they don’t have to be men. Women warriors are women first and warriors second. Their warrior nature is a part of them, but it is not just them. Women are not just warriors. They are so much more, and writers should not limit them to such.

But I’ll get off my soapbox now. I have a hankering to watch Eowyn slay the Lord of the Nazgul in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation now.