In Praise of Michael Bay?!? Revisiting Pain and Gain

(Image Credit: Paramount Pictures)

It was April of 2013 and I had just finished my junior year of college, facing the crossroads between the lackadaisical summer breaks of my previous school years and the impending pressure and responsibilities of potential internships, jobs, future schooling, and adulthood. After the end of the semester, I decided to stick around my off-campus housing for a bit, enjoying everything about my neighborhood and the surrounding area without the worries of class and exams. One afternoon, one of my roommates suggested/demanded that we see the film Pain and Gain, at the time the most recent directorial effort by Michael Bay. Yes, that Michael Bay, one of the most hated directors among critics and the broader internet film intelligentsia. In 2013, Bay was still at the helm of the Transformers franchise, with Pain and Gain being released after the terrible one set in Chicago but before the one with (10 minutes) of dinobots.

(Side note: Transformers: Age of Extinction is really, really, really, like, really bad. The movie has more interest explaining the “Romeo and Juliet laws” to justify the relationship between two young characters than having a coherent plot).

Thus, as a person interested in and keeping up with the broader internet film discourse, I was NOT looking forward to sitting through Pain and Gain. The fact that I was inundated with ads for the film over the previous month (as a male in my early 20s at the time, ads for Pain and Gain were quite common on the TV channels I watched) didn’t help matters much. Pain and Gain looked like a dumb movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of the Michael Bay aesthetic.

Nevertheless, I was wrong. I liked Pain and Gain. Actually, I really liked Pain and Gain. It was still a movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of Bay-isms, hyperfixation on action scenes and explosions, scantily clad women presented on film through “the male gaze,” and mid-level shots panning upward at the people in similar fashion to a Victoria’s Secret commercial. But, rather than a dumb movie, Pain and Gain was a well-acted and well-made dark comedy about true crimes in mid-1990s Miami.

I recently rewatched the film as part of a marathon of movies featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson leading up to the television premiere of Rampage, a brief window of escapism amid a lingering global pandemic along with  racial strife due to systemic racism and continued police brutality in the United States. Not only do I still like the film and think it holds up, but I believe that Pain and Gain as it exists could only have been made by Michael Bay with his particular aesthetic and sensibilities.

This should not be taken as a celebration of all of Michael Bay’s films. ArmageddonPearl Harbor, and the Bay Transformers films are still really bad movies. I never really got into the Bad Boys franchise. His films are still loaded with racist and homophobic characterizations that are uncomfortable to watch. Explosions, action, and special effects alone to not make a good movie. But, in this particular instance, with this particular film, Bay produced a movie that no one else could make.

The movie centers on the real life Sun Gym gang, with members Daniel Lugo, Adrian Doorbal, and Paul Doyle (a composite character based on Carl Weekes, Stevenson Pierre, and Jorge Delgado) played by Mark Wahlberg, the underrated Anthony Mackie (he’s really good in everything he’s in), and the aforementioned Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (he’s actually underrated too, he’s the biggest action star we’ve got and people still overlook that the guy can actually act). The three bodybuilders, frustrated with mounting bills, monotony, sexual impotence in the case of Doorbal, and the sense that they are missing out on “the American Dream,” resolve to kidnap self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (name changed in the film to protect the survivor) played by Tony Shalhoub and make him sign away his home, his businesses, and all of his assets. The bodybuilders are woefully incompetent in their criminal activity but nevertheless manage to steal Kershaw’s money. They attempt but ultimately fail to kill their mark and tie up loose ends, but the bodybuilders manage to get away with their crimes due to the fact that the Miami police find Kershaw so unbelievable (and wildly unlikeable) that they do not investigate the crime.

The criminals revel in their success, with Doorball buying a new house and marrying his girlfriend, Lugo literally moving into Kershaw’s home in an upper class neighborhood, and Doyle slipping back into cocaine addiction and spending all of his money on shopping excursions with his girlfriend, a Romanian stripper eager for her own taste of the American dream. After a few months, the men have run out of money and decide to run a similar scheme on millionaire phone sex operator Frank Griga. This goes even worse than the first plan, as the criminals end up killing Griga and his girlfriend, and their subsequent attempts to cover up the crime and dispose of the bodies results in an escalating comedy of errors that ultimately leads to their arrest.

The film is about crimes ranging from kidnapping to grisly murder, hardly a funny subject on its face. Yet, the film frames the events and encourages the audience to laugh at the escalating ridiculousness as well as the stupidity and despicable nature of the Sun Gym gang. When Lugo tells the audience through voice-over that “he always grew up wanting to see Paris and France,” expresses his love for self-help infomercial speak, and doesn’t want people to think that a urine-soaked Kershaw is “intercontinental” (rather than incontinent), you recognize that “the brains of the operation” isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

As things continue to build and crescendo into the third act, with Griga killed by an errant weight slipping off of a bar or when Doyle attempts to burn off his fingerprints by literally cooking his hands on a grill, you laugh at specifically how uncomfortable and grisly the situation is. When Lugo criticizes Doorbal for buying “a piece of China crap” chainsaw rather than a gas-powered American model in order to dispose of the corpses, you chuckle but are also made uneasy; you probably know someone like this or can imagine someone acting like this in real-life, even within the context of getting rid of a dead body. Simply put, Pain and Gain is an extended episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, quite literally, on steroids.

This is not to say that no one in Hollywood past or present could make a dark comedy. Hell, Martin Scorsese directed and released his own dark comedy about despicable people getting rich just eight months later. However, the specific alchemy of sleazy debauchery that is Pain and Gain could only have been made by Michael Bay. Sure, films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street among others focus on people (men) doing nefarious things to become rich and successful, and these movies are well-regarded by critics and audiences alike and don’t require a lengthy blog post to defend their merits.

But it is the aesthetic style, the specific technical and artistic vision of Michael Bay, is what truly separates Pain and Gain from other films like it. The Sun Gym gang consider themselves shrines to physical human perfection, and Bay’s direction manages to both fetishize their physique while rightly demonizing the men as reprehensible human beings. The “male gaze” is a common theme within Michael Bay’s filmography, usually to objectify women to a young male viewing audience, but in this case it is projected onto the Sun Gym gang, contrasting their obsession with physical perfection with moral bankruptcy through cinematography and the language of film. While Scorsese dark comedies are hyper-stylized films about bad people getting what is coming to them, Pain and Gain leans even harder into excess and bad taste, reserving no ounce of sympathy and humanity for anyone involved.

These aren’t people to feel bad for, look up to, or even think about trying to be like, they are terrible people doing terrible things that you laugh at because you know what’s coming to them and that they deserve it. The grisly, grimy, sleazy ephemora of Pain and Gain highlights how rotten its central characters are, with the over-the top excess of the art direction and cinematography complementing the depiction of crimes ranging from illegal to horrific. Though various Michael Bay-isms have led to numerous films of poor quality, they work together in Pain and Gain to produce a perfect dark comedy.

Deconstructing the Dish: ‘Ohana Stir Fried Noodles at Disney’s Polynesian Resort

(Image Credit: Walt Disney World News Today, https://wdwnt.com/2019/01/review-ohana-remains-great-amongst-recent-menu-changes-and-false-claims/)

As an antidote to the almost global quarantine caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Theme Park Professor, a website devoted to trip planning, travel, and all the ephemera of the Disney parks (along with less thorough sections devoted to other Florida parks, Universal Studios and SeaWorld) launched a “Disney at home” series devoted to bringing the magic of the parks into the home. The archive directs website browsers to virtual rides, fireworks, lesson plans to occupy the kiddos, and most interestingly (to me anyway), recipes for various park favorites. Beset by uncertainty and cabin fever, those hankering for “a taste of the magic” can occupy their time attempting to make a homemade Dole Whip (perhaps a more attainable version than Dole’s DIY version that doesn’t really work) or School Bread.

Recently, the recipes have taken a more tropical dimension, with the site featuring recipes for Tonga Toast and Macadamia Nut Pancakes, culminating with various dishes at ‘Ohana, the most famous and popular restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. The restaurant features all you can eat dishes along with character experiences, allowing children (and children at heart) to meet and interact with Mickey Mouse and Lilo and Stitch in an “island chic” atmosphere. ‘Ohana remains a popular restaurant destination, one to book with an advanced dining reservation, due to the characters, the atmosphere (the sense that you are on a Hawaiian or tropical island vacation within your vacation to Orlando Florida), and the food itself, with outlets and establishments devoted to covering Disney raving about the ‘Ohana Bread Pudding, Honey Cilantro Wings, and the Stir Fried Noodles.

As someone with an interest in all things Disney and all things food, I find the series intriguing, especially as a brief mental escape from a global pandemic. I have previously made the ‘Ohana Bread Pudding, flambe and all, and found the dessert delicious but one that’s quite dense and definitely should only be eaten sparingly. The noodles intrigued me as well, being someone that enjoys stir fried noodles along with expanding my culinary repertoire. However, the recipe inspired both curiosity and concern, not so much with the degree of difficulty, but the choice of ingredients and the representation of cuisine of the Pacific Islands.

Yakisoba Noodles from ‘Ohana (Credit: Theme Park Professor, https://www.themeparkprofessor.com/2020/03/ohana-dinner-at-home/)

Ingredients:

Yakisoba Noodles

Shredded Red and Green Cabbage

Shredded Bok Choy

Pineapple Glaze

  • 2 cups of brown sugar
  • 1 and 3/4 cups of soy sauce
  • 3/4 cup of rice wine vinegar
  • 1 and 1/4 tbsp garlic
  • 1 and 1/4 tbsp ginger
  • 2 and 1/4 tsp cornstarch
  • 4 tbsp pineapple juice

Now, all of these ingredients sound delicious and for the most part work well together, the recipe is largely noodles stir fried in teriyaki sauce with cabbage thrown in. Moreover, the cuisine of the Pacific Islands is certainly influenced by local ingredients, such as coconuts and tropical fruits along with Asian culinary customs. The initial voyagers to the islands came from the Asian continent and brought their crops and livestock along with their cuisine, while more modern movement due to labor demands (especially sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii) fostered even greater contact and acculturation. The noodles at ‘Ohana reflect these patterns, resulting in an Asian dish influenced by the islands through the addition of pineapple.

At least, this is how the ingredients work in theory, a nominal representation of authenticity and diversity within the American icon that is Disney World. In reality, however, the components of the noodles reflect a lack of understanding of the cuisine of the Pacific Islands, the addition of pineapple juice equating the fruit as inherently “tropical” and essentializing the pan-Polynesian setting in a way to be eagerly consumed, metaphorically and literally, by the American public.

Asian and Asian inspired dishes can be readily found in the Pacific Islands, particularly in Hawaii due to the large Asian population living there. Furthermore, teriyaki sauce is not only common but beloved in the Hawaiian Islands, with the famous “Huli chicken” marinated and basted with a sauce combining elements of barbecue sauce and teriyaki. And, of course, pineapples are common to the Pacific Islands and consumed by the people living there, just not as the component of a sauce. Typically, tropical fruits are consumed as is, highlighting sweetness and freshness without adulterating, save for maybe a pinch of salt. Coconuts and coconut milk are integral for desserts, but pineapples are enjoyed as fresh fruit. Pineapples and pineapple juice as an ingredient is largely a Western imposition, to imbue a particular dish or cocktail as inherently “tropical” or “from the islands” with the addition of the yellow fruit.

This is not the first time the Disney Parks produced, marketing, and sold a pineapple flavored offering to convey the aura of a tropical vacation. But, the scrumptious, artificially flavored Dole Whip doesn’t attempt to impart a sense of authenticity, as if one was consuming the cuisine of the islands themselves. The Dole Whip is a soft serve like creation composed of natural and artificial flavors, resembling ice cream but tasting like fruit, something easily accessible and clearly recognized as American . The noodles at ‘Ohana, by contrast, are one facet of Disney’s Polynesian Resort, the hotel defining itself in the setting, iconography, and culture of the Pacific Islands. What results is a Disney-fied interpretation and representation of the Pacific Islands, what Henry A. Giroux calls “an ideologically loaded fantasy.” This fantasy ranges from the name of the resort itself (“Polynesian” a term that translates to “many islands”) to the tiki imagery to the food.

“But,” you may ask, “aren’t chefs allowed to change, adapt, and update recipes? Isn’t the addition of pineapple juice a celebration of the ingredients of the islands?” And yes, people can offer their own interpretations of a given dish, demonstrating creativity or deconstructing to its bare essences to say something about food and taste. But, however, this isn’t what’s happening with ‘Ohana noodles. Instead, this takes the broad strokes of the food and culinary customs of the Pacific Islands and adds pineapple juice to communicate the tropical nature of the dish, essentializing cuisine to a simple equation of “add pineapples and stir.”

Furthermore, the fact that this occurs within the context of cultural appropriation, taking elements from the islands and the people living there and rendering them in a way for a disconnected American public to enjoy, complicates this process. While claiming to celebrate the culture and the cuisine of the Pacific Islands, the Polynesian Resort is one component of the moneymaking apparatus for the Walt Disney Company, the latter looking to profit off of representation and diversity. What results, in the case of this noodle dish, as a misunderstanding and simplification of  cuisine and culture as part of appropriation and commodification.

The Lion King and the Constraints of Realism

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6105098/)

With the outbreak and subsequent crackdowns due to the outbreak of COVID-19, I have finally had time to catch up on some of the numerous movies I didn’t see in 2019. Two of the most notable have been Toy Story 4 (a movie that’s pretty good despite not having a reason to exist) and the remake of The Lion King, two of Disney’s biggest smash hits in a year where the studio grossed a record $10 billion worldwide. While Toy Story 4 was a sequel to an established trilogy, the new Lion King was a live action remake of the 1994 animated classic, adapting and retelling the same story in a new aesthetic as part of Disney’s re-imagining of its extensive library of films

Directed by Jon Favreau, given the green light after the critical and commercial success of the 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book, the remake of The Lion King echoes that of its cinematic predecessor in that both attempt to render their respective worlds realistically. While both The Lion King and The Jungle Book were originally hand drawn animated features, the former one of the best in the medium and the latter, um, not so much, their adaptations portray the animals and landscape through state of the art CGI, aiming for “what if Planet Earth but a Disney story” rather than cartoons stretched to cinematic length. Both films look stunning, the CGI is absolutely incredible, and the remake of the Jungle Book is arguably an improvement over the 1967 film. However, the 2019 Lion King fails to hold up to the 1994 move, largely because it is constrained rather than improved by its realistic style.

This piece is not simply a defense of the original and a condemnation of the new film, a defensive reflex fueled by the nostalgia blinders of a child born in the early 1990s that has watched the original Lion King more times than any other film. There are quite a few good elements in the remake. It does look very nice, the CGI depicting the world of The Lion King as realistically as possible with contemporary technology. Favreau and the creative team made greater efforts to bring in a diverse cast, bringing in Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Simba, Nala, and Scar respectively. Timon and Pumbaa are as great in this movie as they were in the original (if not even better), with voice actors Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner incorporating meta jokes and updating the humor to appeal to both adults and children in a tasteful manner (Eichner’s Timon is a stand out, the character an even sassier version than the one voiced by Nathan Lane). Despite these positives, however, the commitment to realism works to the detriment of the adaptation, with certain narrative beats restricted by aesthetics.

Circle of Life
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7ey9kr

The remake starts just as as the 1994 version begins, with all of the animals of the Pride Lands gathering to witness the birth of the future king Simba. The new film, in its opening scenes, is almost a shot for shot adaptation of the original, with the CGI rendered animals moving in almost the same way as their 2-D counterparts. Most of the scenes in the new version echo that of the original, appealing to the nostalgia of the older audiences bringing and indoctrinating their children into all things Disney or simply watching a retelling of a beloved classic.

However, “most” and “almost” does not mean a total copy, as there are subtle differences in the new film that work to its disadvantage. The vibrant colors throughout the 1994 movie, the crimson red sunrise to open the film, the color changes and fantastical imagery during “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” (the “be careful what you wish for song“), the increasingly demonic tenor of “Be Prepared” as the song goes from Shakespearean plotting to Hitler rally to hell on earth, are all absent in the new version in the name of realism, resulting in a film that is less pretty than its original incarnation. Realistically presenting the African landscape leads to a film that resembles what we can see and know rather than one we can imagine, appealing to the mind, but not necessarily our sense of wonder.

The realistic style affects how the story unfolds, the most notable example being the wildebeest stampede leading to Mufasa’s death. In the original version, the stampede is a dramatic set piece, a fast-paced scene in which Simba struggles to survive and Mufasa rescues his son before being killed by Scar. The scene, one that traumatized many young adults of my age range, remains memorable and impactful because of its technical greatness, the tension of the moment accentuated by the sound mixing and Hans Zimmer’s score. In the original film, the animators took liberties with the speed and the physical limits of the animals, focusing instead on the tension and the emotions of the scene rather than accuracy. In the remake, a film predicated on realism, the animals only move as fast as they can in real life and only behave as they would in the wild. This works to the detriment of the scene, the emotional crux of the movie, as the pace (and even the music) slow down from those in the original, resulting in a scene with less tension that in the 1994 version.

Finally, the remake’s commitment to realism prevents the characters from properly emoting, expressing how they are feeling at any particular point as they did in the original. Though we project emotions (i.e. when dogs smile or when cats seem to pout) as well as develop our own stories when viewing animals (whether it be our pets or those at the zoo) and recognize when animals are stressed or in peril, they don’t react and emote based on a preset narrative, that’s not how real life works. The characters in the original Lion King were animals rather than anthropomorphic, but expressed emotions as humans do in order to portray the story and illustrate how the animals felt at a given moment (the movie was geared toward children after all, the young audience needed to be able to understand what was going on). Thus, in the original film, the characters smiled when they were happy, furrowed their brows when upset, and, in the case of the wildebeest stampede, very clearly expressed shock and horror at the death of a parent.

Simba (1)
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2016/09/disneys-is-remaking-the-lion-king/

In the remake, rather than expressing emotion like humans, the animals make faces and act like realistic animals, preventing them from emoting as they did in the original. Throughout, the characters deliver lines from the original version and those familiar with the plot know how they are feeling, but the characters do not express the emotion they are feeling in a given scene. When Scar is plotting, his face remains blank, the character reenacting lines but not demonstrating the cunning and evil qualities very clearly expressing in the original. Simba, a character that runs the gamut of emotions in the 1994 film, is a lion cub depicted in realistic CGI, his reaction to the stampede and Mufasa’s death missing the horror and emotional weight. Rather than anguish, the new version simply looks like a cat “mewing,” undermining the emotional crux of the film, the adherence to realism working against the adaptation.

Simba No
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://youtu.be/jy4UdBcyh3c

The new version of The Lion King isn’t a bad film, even if it isn’t a good or great one like its predecessor. The realistic CGI presents a beloved classic in a new style and for a new audience, allowing people my age to revisit the world of the Lion King while also bringing younger audiences closer to their parents.  The new version looks pretty and realistic, the animals ranging from impossibly cute to ferocious and the CGI state of the art, but this works against the emotional storytelling and making the animal characters relatable, especially for a younger audience. Ultimately, the film represents the difficulties in remaking animated classics as well as the complications involved in medium transfers. This is not to dismiss the remake project entirely (it is making too much money for Disney to say no), but to say that style and realism can be a constraint when retelling a story previously depicted in animation. In the pursuit of telling a story in a new way, The Lion King along with the other Disney remakes bring characters and worlds to “live action” if not necessarily “to life.”

Anachronism and Aristocats: A Case Study

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dogalize.com/2018/06/everybody-wants-to-be-a-cat/)

The recent launch of Disney+ has led many people to revisit the entirety of the Disney catalog, ranging from animated classics like Beauty and the Beast to less than stellar hand drawn features like The Jungle Book along with recent Marvel fare and nostalgic trips through Disney Afternoon and Disney Channel programming (and yes, Baby Yoda). One of the many titles available is The Aristocats, a 1970 animated film centering on a female cat named Duchess and her three kittens, Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz, owned by a wealthy former opera singer, Madame Adelaide Bonfamille.

When Bonfamille reveals that she is leaving her entire inheritance to her cats, her butler, believing that the inheritance was to be his, resolves to get rid of the cats. Duchess and the kittens meet an alley cat named Thomas O’Malley and attempt to return to their mistress and their lavish home. And…that’s it, that’s the story. Oh, and there’s a mouse named Roquefort because France, one memorable jazz song toward the end, a racist caricature that would make Mickey Rooney blush, and likely the most notable exposure of the West African hub Timbuktu for many children.

The film is light on story, moves at a brisk pace, and contains a lot of reused animatics, owing to the ease of copying through xerography animation used by Disney since the early 1960s. It is a movie that is hardly a classic, but ultimately, it’s a serviceable film about cute cats and kittens being cute cats and kittens, one for children to enjoy and later demand toys.

However, two scenes from this film stand out, not because they are particularly bad or particularly good, but because of their odd presence within the narrative. The very beginning  establishes (very prominently) that the movie is set in Paris, 1910, still within the zenith of aristocratic values before the trauma and bloodshed of World War I. Yet, two elements within Aristocats are utterly anachronistic, deviating not only from the temporal setting but the mentalité of the era that they are worthy of discussion.

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Abstract? More like, abs-cat…(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

The first moment occurs within the first act of the film devoted to illustrating the lavish lives of the “aristocats” and how they go about their day. As youngest kitten Berlioz practices piano and middle kitten Marie engages in a dramatic struggle with trying to stay in tune, the oldest kitten, Toulouse, works on his painting. The purpose of this scene is to convey a sense of refinement within the daily lives of the aristocats, highlighting art as the pinnacle of proper living.

Yet, Toulouse, a cat in 1910 Paris, does not paint within the style of the era, certainly not borrowing from the impressionist tradition of his namesake, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Instead, he approaches paint and canvas in a manner akin to Jackson Pollack, producing an abstract work of art that would certainly be familiar to the 1970 viewing audience but absolutely at odds with Belle Époque Paris. The abstract forms of art popular after World War II and the surrealist and Dadaist aesthetic tradition that inspired them emerged within a specific context, one that would tonally be at odds with the values of the aristocats.

Dadaism and surrealism began as a response and critique of the ideology and logic driving World War I, artists looking at the destructive capacity of the war and critiquing and lambasting all of the discourses that led to that point. “Civility,” a theme heavily implied in the film (though not in its racial or Social Darwinist context), drove European powers to war and violence, leading Dadaists to redefine and quite literally turn the meaning of art upside down in protest. Surrealist and abstract art, essentially a middle finger to convention and pre-World War I aristocratic values, being readily accepted by the aristocats, especially before the war, is a decision informed by misinformation about history.

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Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The second of anachronism occurs during the song “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat,” quite easily the best scene in the movie due to it’s psychedelic imagery (and being the only memorable part of the film, stereotypes and all). The song and the performance invoke jazz and swing, a dramatic shift from “scales and arpeggios” and the classical fare that would more likely be enjoyed by aristocats. Unlike abstract art, jazz was at least developing by 1910, but it was still largely confined to New Orleans, a fusion of ragtime and blues, European melodies and African percussion patterns, performed by African American musicians like Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz became wildly popular in Europe, the representation of “American music” before rock n’roll of the 1960s, but it was very, very unlikely that anyone in 1910 Paris was familiar with or a fan off American jazz. Moreover, those consisting the aristocracy would be even less likely to widely accept jazz due to the need to maintain “proper civility” and appreciate “true art.” Thus, Duchess and the kittens dancing and enjoying the jazz performance is at odds temporally and with the mentalité of the time.

For those that would argue, “this is a movie for children, one focused on cute cats not concerned with history, it doesn’t have to be historically true,” well, you’re right. The Aristocats never claims to be a documentary of the the period or an accurate encapsulation of the era, it’s light entertainment aimed at children. But, I believe that the anachronism in this film is particularly interesting and revealing, not so much for the narrative of the feature but the broader meta-narrative of Disney.

While The Jungle Book was released in 1967, one year after Walt Disney’s death, it was still a film with significant input from the man in charge. The Aristocats, the next feature released, was the first of a new era, one in which Walt was no longer at the creative helm. The incorporation of anachronistic elements, I argue, are not an attempt to blur history intentionally. Instead, latching on to popular elements of the 1960s and 1970s represents an attempt to chart a new course, to reach and maintain an audience, or as many other outlets would put it, “Disney trying to be cool.” With one man so central to the creative process within the animation studio no longer present, anything produced after is bound to be dramatically different, with some contending that The Aristocats serves as the beginning of “a dark age.” This is too much doom and gloom (many of the golden age Disney films really don’t hold up, and that’s without accounting for the numerous racist elements), but the Disney films of the 1970s and 1980s are certainly different from those that came before. The anachronism of The Aristocats exemplifies the new methods used by the animators and new thinking within the studio, one that certainly differed from “Walt’s vision.”

Dole and Disney: An Enchanted Partnership

(Image Credit: Magical Recipes, http://www.magicalrecipes.net/aloha-isle-dole-whip-recipe/)

The Dole Whip and various products mentioned in this article are the respective property of The Dole Food Company and The Walt Disney Company.

Ah, pineapples. The mere mention of the fruit invokes visions of tropical beaches and vacation cocktails. A fruit with regal appearance that served as a status symbol in the eighteenth century, it has made its impact on cuisine as an accompaniment for ham, a key component of a rum-soaked cake turned upside down, and an unfairly maligned pizza topping, as well as a crucial part of the visual imagination of tropical tourist destinations.

If someone were to ask where pineapples come from, the gut reaction answer (particularly from an Amerocentric point of view) would be that they come from Hawaii, the golden fruit part of the iconography of the 50th state along with volcanoes, surfing, and a truly awful exhibition football game. And yes, of the approximately 154,000 tonnes of pineapple produced in the United States, the vast majority come from the tropical Hawaiian Islands. But, the United States (and therefore Hawaii) actually rank 26th when it comes to worldwide pineapple production, dwarfed by the output of top producing countries Costa Rica, Brazil, and the Philippines. Nevertheless, pineapples remain part of the essentialization and commodification of Hawaiian imagery today, a base association owing in large part to the colonial relationship that still exists between Hawaii and the continental states.

Hawaii’s association with pineapple production and the fruit in general is due to the efforts of The Dole Food Company, formed from the merger between Castle & Cooke and the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in the early twentieth century, the latter of which was founded in 1901 by the eponymous James Dole. Dole purchased land throughout the islands for pineapple plantations, in particular a 20,000 acre holding that would become a plantation on the island of Lānaʻi, the largest plantation dedicated to growing pineapple. Combining new mechanized technology, developing machinery that could peel, core, and process anywhere from 35 to 100 pineapples per minute, with exploitative labor (as if “plantation” didn’t give that away), the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, and therefore the Dole Food Company, dominated the production of canned pineapple, producing seventy percent of the world’s pineapple crop by 1923.

But, it wasn’t through mass production alone that Dole Food Company became synonymous with canned, frozen, and even fresh pineapple. Dole and the Hawaiian Pineapple Company launched a mass advertising campaign beginning in the 1920s, tying pineapple to the latest culinary fashions along with the landscape of Hawaii. Dole Food Company along with eight other companies made Hawaii the largest producer of pineapples up to the 1950s, pineapples and America’s tropical outpost becoming one and the same in the minds of consumers. But, the desire for cheap labor led Dole along with others to shift operations to Thailand and the Philippines, with the Dole Pineapple Cannery eventually closing in 1991.

Despite the fact that pineapple production, both fresh and canned varieties, shifted to other parts of the globe, pineapples remain something fundamentally Hawaiian (and by default American) in conception, with many consumers (myself included) not truly considering where the fruit comes from. Many fresh pineapples that you find in the supermarket come from Mexico or other Central American countries. Dole Pineapple Juice, a product packed and shipped by the company most associated with Hawaiian pineapple, is a product of the Philippines. Nevertheless, through advertising, media, reputation, and tradition, pineapple and Dole products in particular remain “American” in the imagination.

This brings us to Dole Food Company’s longstanding partnership with Disney, a continuation of the aggressive marketing strategies used by the fruit company and an  alliance that has furthered the prestige of both corporate entities since the late twentieth century. Dole and Disney both stress their ties to wholesomeness and market their products as family-friendly, and have increasingly worked in tandem with one another over the past few years. While Dole markets its produce as healthy for mind and body, Disney views its media as nourishment for happiness and the soul, assumed goodwill and integrity key components of both brands. The cooperation between Dole and Disney resulted in a dessert that fans claim is just as magical as the rides and characters at Disneyland and Disney World, the “Dole Whip.”

The partnership between Dole and Disney began in 1976, when Dole Food Company took over the primary sponsorship for one of the most well-known attractions at Disneyland, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Debuting in 1963, the Enchanted Tiki Room is a Polynesian themed attraction celebrating island romance and wonder in a magical theater-in-the-round. Initially serving pineapple juice and fruit spears, the Dole Whip came into being in 1986, a dessert similar to soft-serve ice cream made with Dole brand pineapple juice powder. A sweet treat now made entirely with vegan ingredients, the tropical themed dessert spread to other Disney parks, now being sold in Magic Kingdom and Walt Disney’s Polynesian Resort, and attracted a cult following, with 1.3 million Dole Whips purchased on an annual basis. Though the dish can also be found at the Dole Plantation tourist attraction in Oahu, Disney has created “Dole Whip devotees,” with merchandise created in homage to the cult classic along with a podcast named after the theme park dessert.

The Dole Whip adds to the allure of Disney parks, a beloved food item with a false sense of exclusivity that attracts fans young and old, spurring demand for vacation pilgrimages to Disney parks. The belief that a proper Dole Whip can only be found in “the happiest place on earth” and the fact that the dessert consistently appears on “best food at Disney” lists boosts the reputation and “magic” associated with all things Disney. For Dole Food Company, the cult status of the Dole Whip boosts the exposure of and reputation for Dole fruit products, while the continued sponsorship of the Enchanted Tiki Room perpetuates the assumption that pineapples and Dole pineapple packing are fundamentally connected to the culture of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. Moreover, the presence and popularity of Dole within Disney parks helps tie the company to American pop culture and ephemera, marketing itself in alliance with Disney, one of the brands most associated with Americana. Though having long shifted operations out of the Hawaiian Islands, Dole and it’s products remain tied to the consumer consciousness as American aided in large part through its partnership with Disney.

Dole superhero
Image Credit: The Packer, https://www.thepacker.com/article/marvel-superheroes-coming-dole-produce

The collaboration between Disney and Dole does not end with the Dole Whip, as the two companies have increasingly worked with one another in the past few decades, their cooperation reinforcing hallmarks of family-friendly products and all in all wholesomeness. To understand the structure and function of this alliance outside of Disney parks, one must look at another popular yellow fruit mass produced by Dole Food Company, the banana.

Since 2016, select fresh produce items, particularly bananas distributed by Dole, have featured stickers and logos with various Disney and Pixar characters, ranging from Finding Dory and the upcoming Lion King remake to a celebration of the 90th anniversary of Mickey Mouse’s existence. Rather than simply your imagination tricking you into thinking you’re seeing the presence of Disney, its characters, and merchandise everywhere you go, this part of a co-branded effort to “provide high quality produce to help families lead healthier lives.”

Both companies previously launched their own respective programs for nutritional science, with Dole creating the Dole Nutrition Institute in 2003 and Disney launching its Nutrition Guideline Policy and the “Mickey Check” in 2006, the latter of which marking nutritional sound food items with the stamp of Disney’s famous mascot. While nutrition and the incorporation of more fruits and vegetables is certainly important, the collaborative effort furthers the desire for Disney and Dole to stress the wholesomeness of their respective brands and for Dole to entrench itself within consumer consciousness as an American company.

For Disney, establishing nutrition standards and programs helps the company already adored by many garner further goodwill, earning the trust of children and their parents purchasing products with Disney characters. Furthermore, specifically labeling bananas ensures brand exposure, making sure children and families have visual hints about upcoming Disney features. Bananas serve a popular and convenient snack food for many, with Americans consuming about 19 pounds per capita of bananas annually and more than 100 billion eaten around the globe, but they are often a snack given to children, the target audience for Disney products as well as the marketing push with Dole. Working with Dole to brand fruits and vegetables with Disney characters helps to augment Disney’s claims about pursuing nutrition, but also ensures that young consumers of bananas get a frequent reminder about upcoming films and further entrenches Disney characters within the psyche of youth. As the saying goes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, while a banana a day makes sure you see Toy Story 4 on opening weekend.

The reinvigorated partnership certainly benefits the Dole Food Company as well, a mutually beneficial alliance in the same manner as the Dole Whip. Dole fruits and vegetables marked with stickers or logos featuring Disney characters or the Mickey check help transfer the goodwill associated with all things Disney to Dole products, a bag of salad greens or a bunch of bananas getting the approval of Mickey and Minnie Mouse meaning more to children (or even adults) than adhering to the guidelines of the FDA. Furthermore, the presence of Disney iconography on Dole products establishes Dole Food Company and its bananas, pineapples, and other produce as something fundamentally American, tying goods from all around the world to one of the hallmarks of American pop and corporate culture. No matter where said produce comes from or how it is harvested and brought to the supermarket shelf, the collaboration between Disney and Dole conveys trust, wholesomeness, and Americana.

Though Disney is no stranger to corporate synergy and brand alliance, working extensively with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Burger King throughout the late twentieth century, its association with Dole is truly interesting. Rather than simply an alliance based on financial incentives or a recent contract won by the highest bidder, the partnership between Dole and Disney is one in which reputation iconography and seem to be the biggest concern. The Dole Whip ensures that people are aware of Dole’s role in pineapple packing while also adding to the mystique and lore of Disney parks. Moreover, recent efforts at co-branding help to reinforce the brand mission toward health and wholesomeness for both products as well as ensuring the omnipresence of Disney characters and helping Dole latch on to a key component of American pop culture. Though Hawaii is no longer the center of world pineapple canning and production, the fruit and islands remain tied to one another because of Dole’s history and dominance of the industry, this conceptualization no doubt strengthened by the alliance between Dole produce, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and Disney.

Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Movie Franchise?: Reexamining Iron Man (2008)

(Image Credit: Marvel Studios)

Avengers: Endgame is set to premiere in a few days, the twenty-second film in the ever expanding (and fiscally dependable) Marvel Cinematic Universe, promising to shatter box office records along with serving as the culmination of multiple story threads that began with the first phase of the cinematic franchise. After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, in which the mauve menace Thanos snapped half of all existence into dust (spoilers, I guess?), the remaining heroes must rally together to defeat Thanos as well as bring their friends and loved ones back.

The remaining cast includes the original Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor,  Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Incredible Hulk along with additional Marvel heroes Ant-Man, Rocket Raccoon, blue android and daughter of Thanos Nebula, and (coming off of her billion dollar smash) Captain Marvel. These heroes will team up, do something with quantum realm, timey-whimey things, and “avenge” the fallen, stopping Thanos’ plan and keeping the MCU chugging along.

The Marvel franchise has been the dominant box office entity since the release of The Avengers in 2012, with other studios looking to co-opt the success of cinematic universe continuity, resulting in, ahem, mixed to terrible results. Lifting popular characters and storylines from a long comic book history along with leaning into continuity and shared worlds has become a profitable enterprise for Disney, the owner of Marvel Studios. Moreover, the Marvel films have offered the most consistent blockbuster entertainment for more than a decade, films guaranteed to be “ok” or “pretty good” at worst and accessible for a diverse audience.

While it is one thing to celebrate the quality of the Marvel films and the success of the franchise as a whole, it is important to remember that their consistency and bankability was not always a given. Before the release of the original Avengers, the moviegoing consensus questioned whether such an ambitious concept would be viable. Would all of these beloved characters mesh with one another in an organic way, each getting a proper amount of screen time and interacting with one another in an entertaining way? While we now see the critical and commercial success of the Marvel films, particularly the Avengers subseries, as inevitable, it was not always the case.

Ultimately, potential for a sprawling, cinematic universe owed to the goodwill built from the first Iron Man film (as well as the post-credits scene introducing Nick Fury and something called the “Avengers Initiative”). Though Captain America: The First Avenger is well made and well regarded, it along with the rest of the Phase One Marvel films (Thor and The Incredible Hulk) are largely jogging place, setting up characters before the big team up in 2012. Their narratives can only go so far, introducing characters we are supposed to care about but still make them work within a subsequent team up film.

Unlike the other Phase One films, Iron Man was made as a movie first rather than a cog in a cinematic machine. It centered on the now beloved Tony Stark, a former weapons manufacturer that survives capture in the desert, constructing an arc reactor to power a metal suit, dubbed “Iron Man” (despite the fact that the suit was made from various alloys rather than iron). He learns what it means to be a hero, manages to destroy weapons caches in the Middle East, and prevents the arc reactor technology from falling into villainous hands.

The film enjoyed great critical success and made good money, but was not nearly as financially lucrative as the successive films in the MCU. Moreover, the film was a significant risk, featuring an actor with significant issues with addiction in the past starring as a comic book character less well-known than the ubiquitous Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. The character of Tony Stark was significantly different from many of the comic book heroes that made their way to the movie screen. Rather than a teenager adjusting to superpowers or an alien learning what it means to be human, Stark was first and foremost a man, a man that had achieved great success but had to reckon with the consequences of war profiteering and the resulting violence and human suffering.

In 2008, well within the cinematic landscape of the 2000s dominated by fantasy franchises like Harry PotterLord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean along with the supposed “death” of comic book movies with the release of Spider-Man 3 (2007), Iron Man served as something new and different, a breath of fresh air that revived interest in the comic book genre (along with the subsequently released Dark Knight), resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, and promised something potentially grandiose with the Avengers Initiative.

The original Iron Man is fundamentally a character piece, following the transformation of an egotistic “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” to a hero looking to redefine his legacy and protect those he put in harm’s way. It may be the first film in the MCU, but it was first and foremost a movie about a singular man in a metal suit, a movie with modest but not outsized expectations. The hype for the original Avengers largely owed to the goodwill built from this original film, as the succeeding films (The Incredible HulkIron Man 2Captain AmericaThor) had their moments and ranged from average to good but are hardly as memorable as the first Iron Man. Though the MCU has been on a run of steady quality throughout Phase Three, with films like Captain America: Civil WarThor: RagnarokGuardians of the Galaxy 2, and Black Panther achieving massive critical and commercial success (the latter of which nominated for and well deserving of Best Picture), this was not always a given within the franchise. When assessing the merits of the MCU, it is important to avoid determinism and view the entire experiment (and it is still an unprecedented experiment) as inevitable. The quality of one fairly risky film very different from what came before it marked the beginning of the dominating MCU that we have today, something far from a given at its outset.

Style vs. Story: A Thought Exercise

(All films and images are the property of their respective studios)

(Featured Image Credit: New York Post; Paramount Pictures)

Recently, I finally sat down and watched the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a story originally by Truman Capote (yes, that guy) turned into a romantic comedy featuring an iconic Audrey Hepburn performance. Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a New York socialite and “American geisha” who meets and grows attached to writer Paul Varjak, somewhat of a self-insertion character for the author. Paul witnesses Holly’s lavish lifestyle, learns about her past, explores the city of New York with her, and eventually falls in love. After rejecting him in favor of marrying other men for money, the film ends with Holly putting on a Cracker Jack ring engraved at the eponymous Tiffany & Co. jewelry store and running back to Paul to profess her love, simultaneously collecting her cat named…”Cat” to begin their new life together.

After viewing the film, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Breakfast at Tiffany’s has its comedic moments, great production design, and a cast admirably performing their roles (Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature notwithstanding), the film buoyed by Hepburn’s charm and grace. But, the narrative itself is nothing spectacular, a traditional romantic comedy that would likely be panned by critics if it were released today.

Despite the fact that romantic comedies (rom-coms) are often dismissed as derivative, cliché, or nothing more than escapism, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is regarded as a classic film, with Hepburn’s Holly Golightly the most memorable performance of her career (sorry Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady). The mention of “Audrey Hepburn” immediately conjures the image that preceded this piece: the actress as Holly with the tiara, necklace, black dress, and the long cigarette holder to the side. Many people likely have this image on a poster as testament to their love of the actress or for classic cinema (many of these people likely not seeing the actual movie). The image of Hepburn as Holly is iconic, a representation of style, elegance, and elite sociability, the lasting legacy of a film that otherwise lacks much to differentiate it from others in the romantic comedy genre.

Ultimately, it is a very distinct sense of style that separates Breakfast at Tiffany’s from other films and made it as memorable as it is today. Though an engaging story is the driving force for any film, movies are fundamentally a visual medium. Thus, the aesthetics of filmmaking, the production design, costumes, cinematography, and musical choices give every film their own character and help bring the story to life in a way that the script alone cannot. The technical aspects of a film can help to make up for a weak screenplay or they can help elevate the narrative, adding unique elements to tell a story in a new way or simply imprinting the filmmaker’s sense of style into the movie.

The costumes, music, and art design throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s help the film stand out and are the reasons that it is still a memorable work of cinema regardless of its conventional plot. In Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, author Donald Spoto deems the image of Holly with her oversized cigarette holder one of the most iconic images of American cinema, while Hepburn’s “little black dress” was determined to be the greatest outfit worn by a female on-screen. The stylistic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s transcended its narrative, cementing Hepburn’s status as a fashion icon and the character of Holly as the embodiment of style and glamour, neglecting the fact that Holly is considered “a fake” within the film due to being “a lady of the evening.” Style and iconography help to make a film memorable, and in the case of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, can even redefine the film within the popular consciousness.

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Image Credit: Summit Entertainment, Warner Bros.

The 2014 film John Wick is another example of style and design elevating a film to produce one of the most memorable action movies of the past decade. John Wick, for those that have not seen it (if you have not, go see John Wick now), is a simple film based on its plot alone. The main character is a former assassin attacked by Russian gangsters who destroy his car and kill his new puppy, spurring John to come out of retirement and wreak havoc on those that wronged him.

Based on the plot alone, John Wick isn’t memorable; it is a revenge thriller and, according to the filmmakers themselves, an attempt to make “the ultimate 90s action movie.” But, the hyper-stylized elements make for a unique visual experience. Unlike the “shaky cam” to make the viewer feel “in the action” popularized by the Bourne series, John Wick features many wide angles and clear focus on the action without cuts. The nightclub scene, one of the best sequences in cinema in the past few years, stands out because of the attention given to color scheme, stunt work, and the effective use of music, leading Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club to call the sequence “a very loud and bloody dance piece.” Production design and action choreography give John Wick its own sense of style in the same manner as the aesthetic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. John Wick represented a breath of fresh air within the action movie genre and subsequent films looked to co-opt the stylistic elements from a film without a sophisticated plot.

In 2004, Christopher Booker released The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a book that outlines what Booker considers to be the most common narratives within film and literature. Though Booker denies climate change and is maybe not someone to be taken entirely seriously, his argument that there are only seven basic plots is something to consider, regardless of its oversimplification. Probably the biggest complaint within film criticism is that films often lack originality, featuring formulaic or cliché ridden plots. It is true that movies often have similar storylines and often rely on conventional narratives and structure. Style and aesthetics represent one way to make up for or elevate the story, the effort involved in explicit production and technical choices differentiating a good or great film from an average or poor one. Both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and John Wick are popular films within their genres despite the fact that their narratives are conventional. John Wick’s suit and his killing spree of Russian gangsters clad in red shirts and Holly’s black dress and cigarette holder are the most memorable elements from their respective films, style superseding story as the lasting impact for both John Wick and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Why Didn’t This Work: Rogue One A Star Wars Story

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

*Disclaimer: Because of the omnipresence of the Star Wars franchise, I have previously workshopped the ideas in this piece in conversations with various friends. Though the  opinions in this article represent my true feelings about Rogue One and ideas certainly never emerge in a vacuum, thoughts from others certainly influenced how I viewed and interpreted the film and I wanted to credit that here. Additionally, Jenny Nicholson’s review and analysis deals with similar themes and goes into more depth regarding the problems with the film, and likewise influenced (and when I first watched the movie, confirmed) my feelings toward Rogue One. Nevertheless, as part of a (potential) series examining why certain movies with good ideas and potential just “don’t work,” I feel this piece offers some insight and originality into the mechanics of storytelling.*

In December 2016, Disney released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise to that point. With the financial success of Force Awakens and the sheer brand power of the series, the studio looked to instantaneously capitalize on Star Wars mania by releasing a new film one year after the previous installment.

But, unlike the previously released films, Rogue One offered something new, in that it offered something old. Rather than a unique story building off of its predecessor, Rogue One focused on events after the much derided prequel trilogy but before the events of A New Hope, explaining how the Rebel Alliance acquired the plans for the Galactic Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. This “midquel” provided Star Wars fans with information to answer unsolved questions as well as an opportunity to tell a new story and experiment with the traditional formula and storytelling.

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso and her ragtag cohorts as they learn about the Death Star and attempt to steal its design plans and relay them to the Rebel Alliance to prevent mass destruction across the galaxy. They are challenged by Orson Krennic and the Imperial Army and eventually get caught up in a major land and space battle on the planet Scarif, making the ultimate sacrifice in order to deliver “a new hope” to the rebels

If you have not seen the film, the names of the characters and the planet are likely unfamiliar to you, constructed to sound equally familiar and foreign in order to depict people and societies in a galaxy far, far away. If you have seen the film, however, the names of the characters and the planet Scarif are STILL likely unfamiliar to you.

Did you remember that Felicity Jones’ character in Rogue One was named Jyn Erso? Or did you just call her “Felicity Jones” or “other Rey?” I literally had to look up the planet where the main battle, the climax of the film, took place and cross-reference it with various Star Wars wikis to double check my information.

Rogue One made over one billion dollars at the global box office and received fairly good reviews upon release, but it is ultimately a film that just doesn’t work. Unlike that other prequel film I wrote aboutRogue One isn’t simply a collection of references attempting to pass itself off as a story or an appendix of unnecessary information on screen. The film is an attempt to do something interesting with Star Wars property and experiment with story concepts, dealing with covert operations and focusing on “the other guys” involved in warfare rather than generals or space samurai. It offers a good premise, how the rebels got the Death Star plans, and has a solid narrative the successfully builds to the events of the original Star Wars, standing up to evil and making the ultimate sacrifice for the rebellion, dying in the fire the superweapon they were trying to stop, demonstrating the power of the Death Star and the resolve of the Empire.

Rogue One is composed of good storytelling pieces and ideas but ultimately does not come together because of the main characters and their lack of development. The narrative arc of the film wants the audience to sympathize with the main characters and feel an emotional gut punch when they are destroyed by the Death Star’s laser cannon. This pathos never comes because the characters are underwritten, particularly appalling for a Star Wars film. The Star Wars films that worked the best, the original trilogy and Force Awakens, are character driven stories, intentionally borrowing from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” narrative structure. Rogue One fails to develop its characters in the same way, rushing from planet to planet and plot point to plot point in order to finally get to the action spectacle of the third act.

A perfectly illustrative example of this: a friend of mine recently let me know that Disney was beginning production on a new Star Wars show for its forthcoming streaming service. This new series would focus on the adventures and exploits of the male protagonist from Rogue One. In response, I asked for the name of this supposedly central character that would headline the upcoming series, of which I got no answer. Cassian Andor was the name of the main male character, played by Diego Luna, but even if you did see Rogue One you likely had to look that one up just as I had to look up Scarif.

This is not simply an issue of faulty memory, it is difficult to remember the names of the characters in Rogue One because they are not written in a way to truly care about them. Mentioning the original trilogy immediately invokes Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, etc. Rey, Finn, and Poe were the highlights of both Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Hell, even the prequel trilogy brings characters to mind first and foremost, regardless of whether those characters were good or bad.

But Rogue One? Actors come to mind, Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, maybe Donnie Yen, along with the space battle and the ending scene with Darth Vader, but not the characters you are supposed to care about. The characters aren’t written with any personal or internal conflict to allow for development or a character arc throughout the film (a sense of “want” versus “need”), and the main characters are fundamentally devoid of any personality other than a dispassionate sense of duty. This makes it difficult if not impossible to relate to or sympathize with the characters experiencing peril and putting their lives on the line and makes their sacrifice ultimately meaningless, nullifying the intended story arc.

Gareth Edwards served as the director for Rogue One after previously directing the 2014 version of Godzilla. You know, the Godzilla film with a great action scene action scene at the end but too much focus on underwritten and uninteresting characters. This is the very same problem that plagues Rogue One, a film with a great deal of potential to tell a different kind of Star Wars story along with filling in details from previous films regardless of its role in brand management for Disney. Yet, the film’s poorly written, bland characters disrupt its narrative arc, a missed opportunity to do something innovative or interesting by a film that just doesn’t work.

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.