Why Didn’t This Work?: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

(Image Credit: Warner Bros.)

Three days ago, Warner Bros. released the final trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the upcoming sequel to the 2016 film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. An extension of the Harry Potter franchise, re-dubbed J.K Rowling’s Wizarding World, these films follow the adventures of magizoologist and textbook author Newt Scamander in 1920s New York City. The first film in the prequel series focused on Scamander’s attempts to recollect his creatures while dodging the anti-magical New Salem Philanthropic Society as well arrest from the Magical Congress of the United States of America, believing Scamander to be working with the notorious Gellert Grindelwald, the preeminent dark wizard of the Potterverse before the rise of Lord Voldemort.

The new trailer checks all of the boxes to excite Potter fans, hitting familiar musical cues, showing the castle and grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the first appearance of future school headmaster Albus Dumbledore as a young man, touching on but not explicitly dealing with his sexual attraction to the dark wizard Grindelwald. Upon watching the trailer, I had the same reaction I had to the first Fantastic Beasts film.

“Well, it looks pretty at least, but man am I bored.”

This is not simply an excuse to pick on a franchise that I don’t like. Like many people, I am a big fan of the Harry Potter series, reading all of the books (some of them twice) as well as watching all of the movies to the the point of quoting them verbatim. Despite the importance of Rowling’s literary and cinematic work for my worldview growing up, I can’t help but feel disappointed with the Fantastic Beasts series so far, dreading the upcoming sequel more than anticipating it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t without its strong points. As I said before, the film certainly looks nice, with the production and art design doing a wonderful job depicting 1920s New York City. Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler all do well in their supporting roles, with Sudol and Fogler having great chemistry as an unlikely couple. Colin Farrell makes a good antagonist as Percival Graves, later revealed to be Grindelwald in disguise, and would have been a more interesting and less problematic choice for the role than scumbag Johnny Depp.

But, films are not simply judged by their technical qualities, it is the story that matters most when it comes to assessing the quality of a movie. It is in the narrative itself that Fantastic Beasts falls short of the lofty standards set by the Harry Potter books and films. The filmmaker choice, structure of the story, and the main character Newt Scamander derail the potential of this prequel series, the original Fantastic Beasts a shell of the characters and stories it tries to invoke.

The Man in Charge

Director David Yates directed the first Fantastic Beasts film along with the upcoming sequel, becoming the go-to director for J.K. Rowling after helming the last four movies in the Potter franchise (Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows Part One and Two). Though all four of the Potter flicks directed by Yates were critical and commercial successes, “the magic” of the series came from previous directors rather than any inspired vision from Yates. The worldbuilding, setting up the characters, the familiar musical score (John Williams is a genius), and the almost tedious accuracy to the written material all occurred in the first two films directed by Christopher Columbus. The shift toward a darker, more adult tone came from subsequent directors Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell. Yates took over the director’s chair for half of the series, but by then the style and tone were set, leaving Yates little to do other than put the last three books on the screen.

One thing Yates excelled at, for better and worse, was trimming the books to fit to a standard run time, with the exception of Deathly Hallows being split into two films because of corporate greed to tell the entirety of the story. Yates streamlined the narrative and captured the essence of the last three books, particularly useful for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where most of the subplots were insufferable. In the Fantastic Beasts series, Yates appears to be doing the same thing, aiming for a condensed narrative to prevent an excessive run time. Though referencing a textbook from the Harry Potter universe and written by Rowling, Fantastic Beasts is an original story tangentially based on outside material. For full immersion into the new magical universe, the film (particularly the first in a series) needs to set up the world and its “rules.” The American magical body and New Salem society represent attempts to do this, but worldbuilding is shortchanged for the Grindelwald plot. Production design and art direction provide atmosphere and great visuals but not a clear understanding of this new magical setting. Yates’ preference for sleek narrative over engaging in a new world prevents Fantastic Beasts from reaching the standard of its predecessor

References Do Not Equal a Story

The film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a reference to a Hogwarts textbook within the Harry Potter universe, read by students of Care for Magical Creatures and released to us muggles along with Quidditch Through the Ages as supplemental material for obsessive fans (myself included). Grindelwald’s relationship and rivalry with Albus Dumbledore were subplots in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and a brief reference to Dumbledore in the film occurs specifically so fans can “ooh” and “ah” and make connections to the original Potter story. As a part of a prequel series, like many other iterations, the film often makes references to the material it was born out of to establish the importance of the events despite the fact that the outcome is already known.

Though connections need to be made, Fantastic Beasts falls into the trap of making references for the fans at the expense of its own narrative. With the failure to fully engage with worldbuilding, the movie hopes that callbacks to Potter material will satisfy fans, “getting” the obscurities being part of the fun. Because Dumbledore and Grindelwald are important for future events in the Harry Potter storyline, they are focal points in the series, receiving significant attention in the new marketing push and acting as “the real story” in a film titled “fantastic beasts.” Rather than a new story on the world of magic, Fantastic Beasts often seems like the Harry Potter appendices on-screen. Though nostalgia and shared continuity are ever more marketable, fitting Fantastic Beasts into the canon of Harry Potter limits the storytelling potential and leads to references for references sake, like that other time it worked so well.

Newt Scamander and the Failure to Capture Nostalgia

Fans of Fantastic Beasts may argue that this film works because it reminds you of watching or reading Harry Potter, transporting you to a world of magic and wonder where anything is possible. Indeed this is what the original Harry Potter series did, transported “you” to a magical world, a place where your uniqueness and special talents were appreciated and cultivated rather than being “different.” Someone who knows a lot more about books than I do mentioned that main characters in young adult series are often written as empty vessels to act as a surrogate for the reader, with Harry being “boring” compared to the more interesting supporting characters he reacts off of. Harry is a character for readers to project themselves , the reader or moviegoer experiencing a year at Hogwarts, playing Quidditch, and immersing in the magic.

Instead of a proxy for the viewer to latch onto, Fantastic Beasts centers around Newt Scamander, a known figure within the Potter universe with his own personality. This is not to simply criticize Scamander for his lack of charisma, as this seems to be part of the point of his character as someone who has difficulty interacting with people but is at home among his creatures (much of the internet suggests Scamander is on the autism spectrum). Scamander has his own mannerisms and is already an experienced wizard and an expert on magical creatures; the audience does not get to learn and develop with the character in the same manner as Harry. If Fogler’s muggle character were the focal point of the narrative and his being blindsided by the existence of magic the central plot before moving to Grindelwald, the film would be more compelling and properly invoke the feelings of nostalgia it attempts to benefit from. Instead, Fantastic Beasts opts for tangential connections to a beloved story and characters, failing to conjure a new and unique story while also ignoring the template the worked in the past.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them represents yet another attempt to commercialize nostalgia as well as cinematic continuity in the same manner as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film doesn’t make sense without familiarity with the Harry Potter franchise nor does it offer anything interesting to say about the wizarding world, preferring to capitalize on superficial callbacks and references. Producing something with the quality and cultural resonance of the Harry Potter franchise, something that speaks to and offers lessons for children as well as adults is certainly a difficult task, but Fantastic Beasts is definitely the wrong way to go about doing so. Instead of recapturing the magic, the sense of wonder for fans and the commercial success for the studio, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a film that just doesn’t work, a movie with great potential and an opportunity to go in interesting directions that fails to do so.

Hey Arnold!: The Good, the Bad, and the Chocolate Boy

(Image Credit: Nickelodeon)

*Disclaimer: The following article on the Hey Arnold! episode “Chocolate Boy” deals with the theme and representation of addiction, specifically drug addiction. While this is certainly a topic that must not be shied away from, it is not something I have had to witness first hand or on a day to day basis in my own life. It is not my intention to appear insensitive nor ignorant of the issue at hand, a vital talking point in the contemporary sociocultural climate. Nevertheless, I apologize in advance for any potential and/or unintentional mishandling of the subject matter.*

As discussed in a previous article on this siteHey Arnold! was one of the the original “Nicktoons” airing on Nickelodeon in the late 90s and early 00s, and was the most successful program on the network with regard to balance of content for younger children, older children, and adults. While some shows became beloved entertainment for young kids in the 90s and others were geared toward older childrenHey Arnold! struck a balance between charm, lessons and morals, and mature themes and storylines.

One particular episode that stands out with regard to heavy subject matter is the third episode of season 5, “Chocolate Boy.” Many episodes in the later seasons of Hey Arnold focused on the eponymous Arnold’s interactions with secondary and side characters in Hillwood, serving as a moral conscience and helping the city’s residents with their problems. Arnold taught Oskar Kokoshka to read, managed Mr. Green’s campaign to run for office, and helped classmate Harold recognize he was happy at his previous size and lose weight. But, his greatest challenge, according to his friends, would be to help Chocolate Boy “get off chocolate.”

“You can never get Chocolate Boy off chocolate,” Arnold’s friend Gerald explains (minute 12:06). His classmates concur, believing “It would be easier to push a two-thousand pound boulder up an icy mountain,” “Or teach a goldfish how to play a clarinet.” Nevertheless, in his desire to help everyone he can, Arnold decides to help Chocolate Boy to quit eating chocolate once and for all .

Unbeknownst to younger children, Chocolate Boy’s inability to stop eating chocolate is a kid-friendly portrayal of drug addiction, with Chocolate Boy physically unable to stop ingesting the substance. Though played for laughs in is earlier appearances, the Tyrone Biggums of the Hey Arnold! universe, this episode centers on the struggles of overcoming addiction for both the addict and their support network, the fits and starts, the breakthroughs and setbacks. Parallel to efforts to get clean in real life, Arnold makes Chocolate Boy clean out his room of any chocolate, while Chocolate Boy himself goes through the symptoms of withdrawal, shaking, fatigue, even licking ants in a delirious state due to their resemblance to chocolate. Despite the struggles, Chocolate Boy is able to stay away from chocolate for two weeks, prompting Arnold to declare him “a changed kid.”

Chocolate_Boy_(character)
Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnold.wikia.com/wiki/Chocolate_Boy_(character)

But, little does Arnold know Chocolate Boy’s true motivations for wanting to get clean. Rather than looking to truly make a life change, Chocolate Boy manipulates Arnold’s good nature to win a bet with school bully Wolfgang, in which he gets ten pounds of chocolate for being clean for two weeks. Arnold walks away disheartened by the experience, while Chocolate Boy quickly consumes the entire bag of chocolate.

Wolfgang and Chocolate Boy
Image Credit: Nickelodeon
Chocolate Boy Two
Image Credit: Nickelodeon

Eager for more chocolate despite Wolfgang calling him “pathetic,” Chocolate Boy dances for malted milk balls, becoming “a chocolate clown” much to the delight of the fifth grade bullies. He flees their derision and makes his way to a dumpster, again looking for more chocolate, before seeing himself in the mirror, experiencing a “moment of clarity.”

Chocolate Boy Three
Image Credit: Nickelodeon
Chocolate Boy Four
Image Credit: Nickelodeon

Reaching his lowest moment, Chocolate Boy once again approaches Arnold to help him get clean of chocolate, where Arnold expresses his doubt due to previously falling victim to manipulative addict behavior. Chocolate Boy sincerely pleads to Arnold, leading the latter to agree to help once again, paralleling the lack of linear progression all too common in attempting to beat  addiction. Arnold uses scare tactics, showing Chocolate Boy the physical detriments of eating too much chocolate, as well as trying to replace chocolate with carob and various vegetables, similar to weaning off of substances through smaller doses or nicotine patches. None of the aforementioned strategies work, making Arnold resort to hypnosis to get to the psychological root of Chocolate Boy’s addiction.

Chocolate_Boy,_episode
Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnold.wikia.com/wiki/Chocolate_Boy_(episode)#WikiaArticleComments

Arnold’s hypnotherapy leads to the revelation that Chocolate Boy consumes chocolate because he misses his nanny who raised him for much of his early childhood, she gave him chocolate and only wanted him to be happy. Arnold reminds Chocolate Boy that eating chocolate won’t bring the nanny back nor is his addictive behavior making him happy. Recognizing that he can not only be happy without chocolate, but that he will only be happy by eliminating his addiction, Chocolate Boy resolves to never eat chocolate, overcoming his obstacle and completing the character journey for the episode.

“Chocolate Boy” may likely have been the first depiction of drug addiction many children from the 90s and 00s saw on television, a reference point for understanding addictive behavior and leaving enough of an impact that I just spent a significant amount of time writing about a children’s cartoon (again). The episode shows the highs and lows of trying to beat addiction along with the psychological origins for dependence, in this show chocolate as opposed to drugs, alcohol, or other stimuli. Working with Arnold as a support system, Chocolate Boy is able to beat his habit, the episode serving as an effective demonstration of the struggles of addiction for a young audience.

But, like the episode “Rhonda Goes Broke,” the episode continues past the resolution of the central conflict. When Chocolate Boy thanks Arnold for his help, Arnold can’t help but notice that Chocolate Boy seems to really like radishes, one of the vegetables he tolerated when trying to gradually replace chocolate (minute 20:26). Arnold asks for the radishes, prompting Chocolate Boy to declare that he “needs them,” thus perpetuating addictive behavior despite the completion of the character arc mere seconds earlier. As with the botched message in “Rhonda Goes Broke,” the moral of “Chocolate Boy” is undone by a lame joke, undermining the entirety of the character’s journey.

“Chocolate Boy” represents both the very best and very worst of Hey Arnold! The episode tackles a very mature theme, that of addiction, and presents it to a young audience in an accessible and memorable manner. It demonstrates that the path to overcoming addiction is never a linear one, with setbacks all too common before finally achieving a breakthrough. Yet, in what seems to be a reoccurring problem with the series upon review, the end of the episode contradicts the broader narrative, with Chocolate Boy not truly beating his addiction despite the fact that the arc of the story naturally ends with the decision to completely give up chocolate. One could argue that this is darker commentary, that addiction is never truly overcome, but nothing in the progression of the story suggests that this was the intention of the writers. Instead, Chocolate Boy’s addiction to chocolate is substituted for a dependence on radishes, an unnecessary joke botching the narrative as well as the important lessons intended for impressionable children.

Interstellar: When a Good Movie Goes Bad

(Image Credit: Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar arrived in theaters in November 2014, a science fiction epic by the critically acclaimed director of Memento and the Dark Knight trilogy. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine and focuses on a journey through time and space to save humanity from extinction due to a worldwide outbreak of blight destroying crops and depleting the planet’s oxygen. To save the world, McConaughey leads a NASA mission through a wormhole to another galaxy, looking for a suitable planet to be the next home for people.

Interstellar received mostly positive reviews upon its release, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times declaring the film full of visual dazzle and thematic ambition, “a sweeping, futuristic drama driven by grief, dread, and regret.” Other critics deemed the film “a unique and mesmerizing experience” and “a cosmic adventure story with a touch of the surreal and dreamlike.” It eventually received the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and made $677 million worldwide, the film serving as both a critical and commercial success and cementing Nolan as one of the great filmmakers of the twenty-first century and endearing him further to his rabid fan base.

There are a lot of things I like about Interstellar. It is a breathtaking film to watch, with impressive imagination going into designing the “interstellar” worlds. Nolan experimented further with 70mm, with several scenes in Interstellar filmed with Imax cameras, before eventually deciding to use the format for an entire film. While some criticize the music of Hans Zimmer for being overly bombastic, I believe it works in this film, helping to convey a sense of the grandiose beyond our imagination. Like DunkirkInterstellar is a great film when it comes to technical composition, with cinematography, music, production design, and visual effects coalescing into a film that is truly a visual experience in the same manner as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, still one of the seminal works in the science fiction genre.

Though impressive as a technical achievement, movies are judged based on their narratives and performances along with their production. It is in the storytelling that Interstellar falls short of being a great film. Far from being completely ridden with clichés or being incomprehensible, Interstellar has an engaging storyline that completely falls apart at a very specific point in the film. Before revealing the precise moment Interstellar derails, there are two aspects frequently cited as complaints against the film that do not work against the narrative.

Time Dilation

One of the critiques levied at Christopher Nolan, whether in jest or not, is that many of his films “mess with time,” featuring nonlinear structure or cross-cutting different stories to let the audience experience the same chaos the characters are feeling or to catch the movie viewer off guard. MementoBatman BeginsInception, and Dunkirk all employ some element of nonlinear storytelling, a motif in Nolan’s filmmaking in the same manner as banter dialogue at a table in Tarantino films or general terribleness in Raja Gosnell films.

Interstellar features a rapid progression in time, but grounds it in the concept of “time dilation” in physics. When McConaughey and the team arrive on the first potential planet, they note that the gravity is significantly greater than on Earth, warping time to such a degree that one hour spent on the planet would equal seven years on Earth, making completing the mission quickly of utmost importance. Things go awry, and the delays cause twenty-one years to pass on Earth. Even if the viewer does not have a background in physics, this does not derail the movie, it is simply a plot device to make the situation more dire. Moreover, it allows McConaughey’s daughter to age into adulthood and become more useful in solving the gravity equation that has stumped Caine’s character for years. Though involving hard scientific concepts, the time dilation simply advances the action and adds greater consequence to the actions of the characters.

Scientific Jargon

Interstellar relies on scientific realism, specifically the ideas of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, to set the narrative in motion, opting for a science fiction movie grounded in realityas opposed to the futuristic technology and fantasy elements used throughout the genre. Concepts like gravitational waves, wormholes, and black hole cosmology owe to Thorne’s work, and Thorne himself laid out guidelines before consulting on the film:

First, that nothing would violate established physical laws. Second, that all the wild speculations, and there certainly are some here, would spring from science and not from the fertile mind of a screenwriter.

Thorne, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Michio Kaku were very pleased with the film’s adherence to scientific realism, grounding itself in science rather than fantasy. But, to adhere to this format, there are many instances throughout the film where the plot stops so the characters can explain the science to the audience, showing that Nolan and the film’s crew indeed “did their homework.” Again, this is a lot of hard science, but like “messing with time,” it does not detract from the movie. The use of science gives the film a personality much different from many other science fiction films; the fact that the people of Earth have few options due to our limited knowledge of physics makes the conflict more critical than if we could simply travel at the speed of light to another galaxy. Moreover, like the time dilation, the audience doesn’t have to know the equations and theories behind the science, just that the characters are in a grim situation and have limited options to save humanity. Scientific realism gives Interstellar style and personality much different from films like the Star Trek, Star Wars, or Alien series, with abstract science highlighted by technical mastery to produce a visual masterpiece.

And, then it all falls apart

Though well made from a technical standpoint, with a lot of thought and care devoted to the visuals, cinematography, and science, Interstellar completely falls apart in its third act, resulting in a film that is simply “good” even though it had the potential to be great. After completing a “Heart of Darkness but in space” arc in its second act, McConaughey and Hathaway are stranded in a barely functional space station hurtling toward a black hole. Hathaway resolves to go to the final potential planet carrying fertilized human eggs, “Plan B,” while McConaughey launches into the black hole Gargantua, allowing the space station to move in the opposite direction based on Newton’s third law of motion. Rather than being ripped apart atom by atom due to the gravitational pull of the black hole, McConaughey enters a tesseract, a five dimensional space that allows him to move through time as a physical dimension, in order to reconnect with his daughter and relay information from the black hole and complete the gravitational equation to bring all of Earth’s people through the wormhole into the new galaxy.

The scene in the black hole fundamentally derails the movie, undermining the previous elements of scientific realism and relying on “the power of love” to resolve the central conflict of the film. McConaughey’s actions in the black hole represent a shift from established to more theoretical and speculative physics, with humans from the future able to perceive five dimensions supposedly responsible for creating the tesseract. Furthermore, McConaughey can supposedly communicate with his daughter because of his love for her, as “love is able to transcend time and space.” Because we are able to love people despite the distance as well as loving people who died, it is love that allows McConaughey to connect with his daughter despite being in another galaxy. Though mentioned briefly, this is not a theme that carries throughout the entire film. In a movie so reliant on realism and scientific relations, resolving the conflict of the film through emotional connection is a jarring shift that deviates from the previously established themes and atmosphere. As movie critic Bob Chipman stated,

Interstellar actually still wants to be about humanity, human beings, families, emotional connections, and, well, feelings. Which means, its actual thematic underpinnings could not be less suited to Christopher Nolan.

Though the director behind many beloved movies, Nolan is not known for emotions being at the core of any of his films, with style, imagination, and technical wizardry superseding heart. This is not necessarily a bad thing, after all many of Nolan’s movies are still very good , and not every work needs to focus on an emotional core. However, to suddenly rely on emotions to solve the crisis of humanity breaks from the rest of the film, likely a relic from the original draft when Steven Spielberg was set to direct. The “power of love” as the savior of humanity is certainly noble in conception, but contradicts the rest of Interstellar, resulting in a movie that ultimately doesn’t know what it wants to be. Certainly a technical achievement, an experience worth watching for the imagination and design, Interstellar’s narrative shortcomings prevent it from being a great film despite having the potential to be one.

How to (Preemptively) Fix Rush Hour 4

(Image Credit: New Line Cinema, Warner Bros.)

On the February 22 episode of The Undefeated’s (owned and operated by ESPN) “The Plug” podcast, comedian and actor Chris Tucker announced a sequel to the Rush Hour franchise, a series of buddy cop films dating back to the release of the original Rush Hour 1998. Tucker was quoted as saying,

“It’s happening. This is gonna be the rush of all rushes. Jackie is ready and we want to do this so that people don’t ever forget it.”

Although Tucker made his announcement in February, because I do in fact live under a rock, I did not find out about this information until very recently. Though I am certainly a fan of the franchise, having a certain nostalgia for Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, and comedy from the 1990s, upon learning about a potential fourth sequel, I was perturbed rather than excited. A sequel in the Rush Hour franchise released years after the last entry, featuring callbacks and in-jokes that only make sense if you watched earlier films? We had that already, it was Rush Hour 3. Do you remember Rush Hour 3? It was absolutely terrible! A lazily written, cynical cash grab damaging a fun (even if not necessarily perfect) film series.

Thus, in an effort to make sure a travesty like Rush Hour 3 doesn’t happen again, I have a basic outline of suggestions on how I would preemptively “fix” Rush Hour 4. Obviously, I’m not a professional screenwriter, but as a fan of a series I still believe has value and something to say in today’s sociocultural climate, I believe these suggestions would go a long way to create a satisfactory film.

Go Meta

Quick, off the top of your head, what is the most memorable buddy cop movie of the past decade? That would be 21 Jump Street, right? Some of you in my theoretical audience may have suggested The Other Guys. What do those movies have in common? They both deconstruct the buddy cop genre, poking fun at the predictable scenarios and character clichés. The sequel to 21 Jump Street22 Jump Street, goes further and makes fun of the “bigger and better” edicts of Hollywood sequels as well as the sheer ridiculousness of franchise building.

A new Rush Hour sequel should follow this model, using meta humor rather than simply pretending that the likely formulaic plot is fresh and new. Rather than simply, “here we go again,” make fun of the fact that Agent Lee (Chan) and Agent Carter (Tucker) are still running around having to deal with the same villains and threats as before. Moreover, make fun of the fact that these guys are back in a superfluous sequel, with the new curmudgeon police chief criticizing Lee and Carter as out of time in place, a la “it’s 2018, we don’t need you anymore.” Going in the meta direction would result in a thoughtful and complex film, with the two leads working to overcome the villain of the film while also making the audience care and root for both the actors and the movie to succeed in spite of the internal and external meta criticism of its own existence.

Allow the Leads to be Older

When the first Rush Hour premiered in 1998, Jackie Chan was a 44-year-old actor still performing his own stunts and imbuing martial arts action with comedic timing that separated him from his peers. Chris Tucker was 26 years old and a rising comedic movie star, gaining fame for his memorable roles in The Fifth Element and Friday along with Rush Hour. Chan has attempted to move on from strictly action roles to diversify his filmography, relying less on stunt work that he simply is not able to perform anymore. Tucker, by contrast, largely disappeared from stand-up comedy and Hollywood after becoming a born-again Christian, reprising his role in the Rush Hour sequels being is only major role in the 2000s. Simply put, both men are twenty years older and significantly different from the people they were in the 1990s.

Rush Hour 3 ignored the basic reality that its stars were older actors, hoping that audiences would forgive the six-year gap between film releases and be content with a repackaged plot and “remember this” in-jokes. Remember, Rush Hour 3 was a lazy cash grab that we’re trying to avoid in this thought exercise. Borrowing from the meta humor, a fourth Rush Hour sequel should draw attention to the fact that Lee and Carter are older. This does not mean make fun of Chan and Carter for being old, what some films think constitutes self-awareness. Instead, how have Lee and Carter’s worldview changed since the 1990s? How do these men respond to the fact that they’re getting older, their limitations, a changing social and political climate since the 1990s? Hell, give us a dramatic conversation between these two, supposedly good friends off-screen, where they can, gasp, show off some acting chops. A sequel with self-referential humor and some emotional weight to it, not taking itself too seriously but also having a truly serious moment or two, would be a memorable and thoughtful film, a hard feat to achieve in a franchise spanning decades.

End It

This is likely the hardest step to follow, for a Hollywood studio will always try to extend or revive a franchise as long as it is making money or has the potential to make money. But, additional Rush Hour sequels would just extend and dilute the brand more than it has been already. Lethal Weapon, Police Academy, Beverly Hills Cop (they are making a fourth one), and, as of now, Rush Hour, all overstayed their welcome specifically because they continued to rely on formulaic plots and stale jokes; the studios simply wanted to make money rather than making good movies. Ideally, the Rush Hour franchise would have ended after the second film, but since that’s not the world we live in and a fourth film seems to be a reality, it should be the final entry, a fitting conclusion to a franchise rather than recycled references and jokes stuck in the 1990s. Following the outline laid out would result in a thoughtful, introspective work, recognizing the superfluous nature of its existence while also having something to say about its characters, the world of today, and getting older. Just because it is the fourth film in a franchise does not necessarily mean Rush Hour 4 has to be terrible. A film made with care and consideration would elevate the franchise and the genre itself, offering insight in a genre that often lacks it.

Hey Arnold, Class, and Inequality: A Tale of Two Rhondas

(Images Credit: Nickelodeon)

Hey Arnold! was one of the original cartoons (“Nicktoons”) airing on Nickelodeon in the late 90s and the early 00s, running from 1996 to 2004. The series centered on the life and experiences of Arnold Shortman*, a nine-year-old boy with a football-shaped head living with his grandparents in a boarding house located in Hillwood, an urban amalgamation of New York City, Seattle, and Portland. Many episodes focused on Arnold navigating life in the city, dealing with the rigors of school, urban legends, or childhood adventures with his friends and local denizens. While early on Hey Arnold! concentrated on Arnold as the central character, over time the series turned attention to secondary characters, with Arnold nearly becoming a superhero to help them deal with their problems.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting the series, which airs on TeenNick’s “NickSplat” block from 11pm-midnight in an effort to capitalize on nostalgia for childhood cartoons. Compared to other Nickelodeon cartoons, Hey Arnold! holds up fairly well, with surprisingly adult story lines and a setting and characters that are not too dated to enjoy today. Two episodes in particular stand out, possessing eerily similar plots and themes but reaching vastly different conclusions. These two episodes, “Rhonda’s Glasses” and “Rhonda Goes Broke” deal with class and inequality, with one episode handling these issues well and the other botching the message so poorly that it stuck with me, motivating me to take time and critically analyze a children’s show from almost twenty years ago (and now I feel old).

In the show, Rhonda is the rich, popular girl in Arnold’s class, wearing only the latest fashion and flaunting her wealth and status as a demonstration of superiority, much to the dismay of her fellow classmates. Rhonda-centric episodes of Hey Arnold! often focus on the drawbacks of Rhonda’s wealth and her behavior, with “Cool Party,” in which Rhonda invites only “cool kids,” and “Polishing Rhonda,” where Rhonda goes to finishing school, showing the limitations of wealth and the detriments of snobbish and condescending behavior. The lesson in episodes centered on Rhonda largely offer the message, “don’t act like Rhonda,” with Rhonda’s “cool party” ending up being anything but and Rhonda only succeeding at finishing school by completely changing her attitude to be humble.

Likewise, “Rhonda’s Glasses” and “Rhonda Goes Broke” fixate on Rhonda’s behavior, aiming to teach kids once again that conceited behavior and treating people as lesser simply because of differences in wealth or status is mean-spirited and wrong. The former episode begins with Rhonda sending a new kid, coded as a “nerd” due to glasses, quiet demeanor, and lack of confidence, to the “geek seats” in the back of the bus, where the “geeks” experience motion sickness and inferior treatment simply because of their status as geeks.

Rhonda Bus
Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnoldreviewed.blogspot.com/2016/05/s2-e33-eating-contest-rhondas-glasses.html

Eventually, Rhonda takes and fails a vision exam, requiring glasses in order to see. However, wearing glasses defines Rhonda as “a geek” and she is also banished to the back of the bus with the rest of the “geeks,” experiencing the same humiliation and substandard treatment she inflicted on them.

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Enter a Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnoldreviewed.blogspot.com/2016/05/s2-e33-eating-contest-rhondas-glasses.html

Rhonda suffers further humiliation and sub par treatment, sitting with the other geeks at a broken lunch table and playing with a flat ball at recess, until she decides she’s mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. She urges her fellow geeks to rebel, inspiring them to proclaim her “queen of the geeks” and resist the unwritten rules of “geek seats” on the bus. The episode ends with Rhonda inviting the previously shunned new kid to sit with her at the front of the bus, learning her lesson and becoming a better person.

“Rhonda’s Glasses” features a “want vs. need” character arc involving Rhonda as well as lessons for children regarding class and inequality. At the beginning of the episode Rhonda acts like a jerk, believing herself to be superior based on an artificial class system based on popularity, largely informed by wealth. Upon receiving glasses, she initially “wants” her life to go back to normal, to be rid of her new spectacles and retain her place at the top of the social hierarchy. But, after experiencing life as a geek, she recognizes the unfairness of the entire system and rebels; she “needs” to treat people better and do away with an unfair system, even if she benefited from said system. The broader lesson in this episode, particularly important for a children’s program, is to treat people fairly; one should not act condescending based on status, in this case social class within the school system. Rhonda and the intended audience of children both learn that differences are often artificial, with discrimination based on perceived differences being immoral and violating the golden rule of “treating others is you would want to be treated.”

“Rhonda’s Glasses” aired on December 7th, 1997, and offered a positive message for children as well as an accessible understanding of class difference and discrimination. A little over three years later (January 5th, 2001), Nickelodeon aired the episode “Rhonda Goes Broke.” On the surface, this episode appears to follow a similar formula and offer the lesson to not act like the conceited version of Rhonda. The episode begins with Rhonda flaunting her clothing, wealth, and impeccable sense of fashion, once again acting snobbish and superior to her classmates based on her status. Upon returning home, she learns that her parents lost all of their money and they are now poor, forced to move into the boarding house where Arnold lives. Initially, Rhonda pretends that everything is normal, claiming that she will soon receive new clothes and go on expensive vacations in Aspen, but it is finally revealed by another rich classmate that Rhonda’s family is poor, so poor that they cannot afford food or clothing.

Rhonda_Goes_Broke
Image Credit: Nickelodeon

Rhonda cries and laments, wanting to go back home and “be rich again,” explaining to Arnold that being rich is the one thing she’s “really good at.” Arnold reprimands her, calling her pathetic and arguing that just because she is no longer rich doesn’t mean she is no longer Rhonda, “unless being rich is all she’s about.” Rhonda takes this advice to heart and makes her own clothes, keeping up her fashionista persona despite the fact that she can’t afford expensive clothes. Her classmates are impressed with the new Rhonda, and at this point, the “want vs. need” arc is complete, Rhonda learning once again that wealth and status are not what truly makes her identity and that putting people down because of their lack of wealth or status is not appropriate behavior.

But, the episode doesn’t end there. No, the episode ends with her family’s stock “bouncing right back” and the Lloyd’s being rich again (even the musical cue finds this ridiculous (minute 22:22)). Rhonda completely reverts back to old Rhonda, flaunting her wealth and offering Arnold a tip for his help and his advice, as “people in his position appreciate these things.” Rhonda is rich and back to her previous behavior, completely negating the story arc and her character development.

While “Rhonda’s Glasses” successfully handles the lesson of class and inequality, explaining to the audience that status distinctions are often artificial and should not be used to discriminate, “Rhonda Goes Broke” muddles its message, contradicting its story arc for a mean-spirited joke. The lesson in the former episode, “discrimination is wrong,” is a positive lesson for children, whereas the ending of the latter episode seems to argue, “be yourself, unless you can be rich. Then be rich.” Though both episodes follow a similar trajectory and focus on the same themes, one episode effectively handles the narrative and lesson with the other completely mishandling it. When looking to entertain and educate children, this becomes more important and negative lessons can be detrimental in the short and long-term.

*Though a running joke throughout the series was that Arnold did not have a last name, in the recent television movie, Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie, it was revealed that his last name was indeed “Shortman,” a nickname used frequently by Arnold’s grandfather.

Revisiting Troy (2004): An Anti-War Epic?

(Image and Video Credit: Warner Bros.)

Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy, a  (very) loose adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, hit theaters in 2004, part of a wave of sword-and-sandal epics throughout the early 2000s that looked to achieve the same critical and commercial success first enjoyed by Gladiator (2000). The film stars Brad Pitt as Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector (the role in between the abomination that was Ang Lee’s Hulk and Stephen Spielberg’s critically acclaimed Munich), Orlando Bloom as Paris, Brad Pitt’s abs, Brad Pitt’s terrible accent, Sean Bean as Odysseus, Brian Cox as Agamemnon, Diane Kruger as Helen, Brad Pitt’s terrible accent again, Peter O’Toole as Priam, and Brad Pitt’s terrible accent a third time. Rather than a direct translation of the Greek epic poem, Peterson’s film ignores the mythological aspects of the conflict and condenses the war from 10 years to a few days of fighting. Instead of a retelling of an ancient story, the film alters the narrative of the Trojan War in an attempt to make history modern.

In this vein, one particular scene stands out as a reflection of contemporary events rather than sole focus on a conflict of myth and legend. After Achilles and his Myrmidons establish a foothold on the beach of Troy, leading Agamemnon and the Greek kings to believe the war will be brief and a swift victory, the combined Greek army fails to breach the city walls and suffers heavy casualties. That night, Agamemnon laments to Odysseus and his adviser Nestor, “They’re laughing at me in Troy, drunk with victory! They think I’ll sail home at first light.” Nestor replies, “If we leave now, we lose all credibility. If the Trojans can beat us so easily, how long before the Hittites invade?” Odysseus follows, ” If we stay, we stay here for the right reasons: to protect Greece, not your pride” before urging Agamemnon to make peace with Achilles to defeat the Trojans.

It is at this point, factoring the contemporary context for a film released in 2004, that one cannot help but think about the state of the War in Iraq at the time. The invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003, with coalition forces sweeping through the country and ousting Saddam Hussein in seemingly decisive fashion, leading President George W. Bush to declare an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003, the now infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.

Of course, the War in Iraq did not end after the initial invasion, as continued violence and atrocities mired the region and bogged down military forces. This along with the revelation that the United States entered the war under false pretenses, with the Bush administration allegedly making 935 false statements as part of an orchestrated campaign to effectively galvanize public opinion and misrepresent the security threat posed by Iraq under Hussein, led domestic and international public opinion to turn against American military involvement. Likewise, the initial success and hubris of the besieging Greek army was met with a protracted conflict that did not go according to plan. Agamemon’s offensive against Troy, with the stated casus belli to rescue Helen, differed from his true motives, extending Mycenaean power and influence across the Aegean. For both Agamemnon and President Bush, desert based offensive military action devolved into a war they dare not lose rather than one that could be won.

For those that would argue that drawing parallels between the plot of Troy and the events of the War in Iraq is reading into the text after the fact, Wolfgang Petersen, the director of the film, would like a word with you. Petersen himself equated President Bush’s actions to those of Agamemnon in his film, explaining,

“Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, President George W. Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.”

In press notes for the film, Petersen contended, “I don’t think that any writer in the last 3,000 years has more graphically and accurately described the horrors of war than Homer,” believing that the poem itself revealed that the Trojan war was a disaster for everyone. In a German interview before the film’s release, Petersen lamented, ”People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance. […] It’s as if nothing has changed in 3,000 years.” Rather than parallels emerging out of coincidence, Petersen’s understandings of geopolitics and conflict in 2004 fundamentally influenced his adaptation of Homer’s Iliad. Rather than a direct adaptation leaping directly from the source material onto the screen, for better or worse, Petersen’s understanding of the present shaped his narrative of the past.

So, with the director’s work undoubtedly informed by the unfolding of the War in Iraq, looking to condemn those in power using deceit for their own aims as well as the violence and bloodshed caused by war, why are the most memorable moments from this movie the scenes of violence and bloodshed? Though the film depicts Achilles as nothing short of a jackass until he finally fights for more than himself by rescuing Briseis, his most famous on-screen moments are battle scenes portrayed as “cool” rather than brutal or sickening. In an effort to replicate the success of sword-and-sandal epics of the past, Troy is built around its battle scenes and grandiose set pieces, muddling the director’s anti-war sentiment and the intended message of the film. Instead of a clear repudiation of warfare, something that would truly separate Troy from other films like it, what results is the South Park method of “having your cake and eating it too” at best or a movie that chickened out on its premise at worse.

In her analysis of feminist theory in the Transformers franchise (really), Lindsay Ellis explains that though it is Megan Fox’s character of Mikaela Banes that truly has a character arc in the first two films in the franchise, overcoming her past positively adapting to the new world of machines, the framing and aesthetics on how Fox is shot on film casts her as eye candy rather than a character in her own right. “Framing and aesthetics supersede the rest of the text, always, always, always,” an axiom that rings particularly true for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. Rather than an epic truly devoted to a protest of war, Troy limits its effectiveness as an anti-war film through cinematography and production design overtaking the text.

Nationalism for Children: How ‘Avatar the Last Airbender’ Explores Violence and National Identity

(Image Credit: Nickelodeon)

(This article was originally published October, 2017)

Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon from 2005–2008, chronicling the adventures of Aang, a 12-year-old boy who is the most recent incarnation of the Avatar — the person who can bend Water, Earth, Fire and Air — and his companions Katara, Sokka, Toph, and eventually Prince Zuko. Aang and his cohort (calling themselves “Team Avatar”) must put an end to the war with the Fire Nation, led by Fire Lord Ozai.

Featuring complex characters, mature storylines, great animation, a celebration of Asian cultures and a successful balance of humor, tragedy and Eastern philosophy, many consider ATLA one of the best cartoons of all time, a show that adults and children can enjoy. ATLA treated its audience with respect and addressed adult themes and concepts despite being a children’s program.

In particular, ATLA tackles the concept of nationalism, an ideology involving national identity formation and acting in the name of protecting and promoting this identity, through its portrayal of the Fire Nation. Rather than simply a generic term to signify difference from the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes and Air Nomads, the Fire Nation embodies the development of national identity and horrifying results of hypernationalism. The Fire Nation represents the epitome of national identity formation, an “imagined community” defining “self” as opposed to “the other” and the ultimate extension of this logic.

In 1983, political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism to theorize how people tied identity formation to the idea of a nation, leading to nationalist ideology and political agitation to form a nation state. Rather than being a primordial identity, national identity formation only occurred through “imagining a community” fostered through modern printing (what he calls print capitalism) and a decline in the belief in “rule by divine right,” both of which occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

An “imagined community” links a diverse group of people under a single identity. For example, a person in Oregon and a person in South Carolina are both “American” despite separation by thousands of miles and likely never meeting face to face. The conceptualization of the nation explicitly delineates a physical space for the “imagined community” with borders separating “self” from “the other.”

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The world of ATLA, with regions defined by the elemental benders that live in the respective area. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

While Waterbenders constitute northern and southern tribes, Airbenders populate specific temples, and Earthbenders live in the Earth Kingdom, Firebenders define their region as the “Fire Nation,” a space for an imagined community of Firebenders to live and operate. Unlike the other benders, the Firebenders consider themselves a nation, a continent for the “self” as opposed to the “other.” Nationalism can certainly be benign, a tool to unite a diverse population or a method to refute colonial rule, but Fire Lord Sozin and Fire Lord Ozai represent heightened nationalism that serves as a threat to “the others” in the world of ATLA.

In the Season 3 episode “The Avatar and the Fire Lord,” Fire Lord Sozin shares his idea for a better world with Avatar Roku, Aang’s predecessor.

“Our nation is enjoying an unprecedented time of peace and wealth. Our people are happy, and we’re so fortunate in so many ways. […] we should share this prosperity with the rest of the world. In our hands is the most successful empire in history. It’s time we expanded it.”

The Fire Nation, an industrial power utilizing coal-powered tanks and warships, represents the pinnacle of civility and modernity according to Sozin (modern industrialization being a prerequisite to nation formation per Anderson). He asks Roku — his best friend and fellow Fire Nation citizen — to extend his nationalist project, looking to form colonies in the Earth Kingdom and spread Fire Nation culture throughout the world. Being the Avatar, Roku recognizes the important of balance between the four elements and their landholdings, leading him to reject Sozin’s proposal. Later in the episode, when Roku chastises Fire Lord Sozin for setting up Fire Nation colonies despite his warning, Sozin replies:

“How dare you, a citizen of the Fire Nation, address your Fire Lord this way. Your loyalty is to our nation first. Anything less makes you a traitor.”

Sozin declares that Roku has betrayed his nation, the imagined community of the Fire Nation. Roku remained the biggest obstacle to Fire Lord Sozin’s ambition, but with the Avatar’s death, Sozin advances his project, extending the ideology of “self” and “other” to its most extreme.

Roku and Sozin

Roku and Sozin, both Fire Nation citizens, but with vastly different ideologies. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

After the death of Avatar Roku, Fire Lord Sozin recognizes that the next Avatar in the cycle will be an Airbender, leading him to conduct the genocide of the Air Nomads, leaving Aang to discover that, after being frozen for 100 years, he is the eponymous “last Airbender.”

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The remains of Monk Gyatso, Aang’s mentor, after the Fire Nation genocide. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

In the series finale, Fire Lord Ozai attempts a similar genocidal campaign, harnessing the power of Sozin’s comet and adopting the title of Phoenix King, aiming to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom and establish himself as the ruler of the world. Though violent and horrifying, the actions of Sozin and Ozai represent the ultimate extension of national identity formation, where the “self” removes or eliminates the “other” to maintain the homogeneity of the nation.

Phoenix King

Ozai, bequeathing the title of Fire Lord and becoming the Phoenix King. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

Rather than being separate from or a corruption of nationalism, ethnic cleansing and genocide have served as processes of national identity formation throughout history. Totalitarian regimes use violence to quell threats to the ruling power, while the Armenian Genocide and the Nazi Holocaust represent the worst of human atrocities conducted in the name of Turkish nationalism and fascist ideology, respectively, “protecting the self” from “threats to the nation.” Thus, the Fire Nation is the epitome of national identity formation, an imagined community defining “self” and “other” while using violence as an extension of nationalist rhetoric.

Rather than shy away from mature themes or adult concepts such as nationalism or mass violence, ATLA embraces big ideas and presents them to a young audience while balancing them with fast-paced action, humor and heart. Though nationalism does not automatically result in violence and is not inherently evil, the Fire Nation demonstrates the harm in hypernationalism, a rigid definition of “self” that precludes others.

Not only do show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko illustrate the dangers of rampant nationalism, but they also present a solution: multiculturalism. Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Suki and their allies hail from all across the globe. The embrace and celebration of differences helps the protagonists resist the attempt by the Fire Nation to eliminate difference, a worthy lesson coming from a smart, well-written and forward-thinking television program for children.