Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues

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“A not-so-animated feature”

The rating here is largely based on my (I’d say, not unreasonable) expectation going in, that this would be actual animation. It isn’t. This appears to be, what I’ve since learned is called, a “motion comic”: think of it more as an illustrated radio play, with voice actors playing the parts in front of somewhat animated panels. And when I say, “somewhat”, I mean there is typically no more than one thing moving on them e.g. a character’s mouth. I can see comics for which this approach would work; unfortunately, a heavily action-oriented story such as Red Sonja is not among them.

It’s a shame, as the story and voice acting are both quite well-done. Sonja (Lee) and another prisoner are rescued by King Dimath, from a dungeon where they had been forced to fight other captives for the amusement of their captors. Years later, Dimath sends Sonja a call for help. His kingdom has fallen prey to a plague, and a horde is about to sweep through it, intent on salting the earth to prevent the disease spreading. And, wouldn’t you know it, commanding that horde is Annisia (Strom) – who just so happens to be Sonja’s co-captive from her time in the dungeon. Her experiences have pushed her into quite a different psychological path, shall we say.

It reminds me more than a little of the Xena: Warrior Princess arc which pitted Xena against her own blonde nemesis from the past, Callisto. That’s not a bad thing, and there’s no shortage of strong female characters, such as the bow-wielding bodyguards Dimath dispatches to stand alongside Sonja. Admittedly, they are more used to taking out rabbits – which may or may not be a Holy Grail reference. Yet what they lack in combat experience, they more than make for in the effusive complimentary terms by which they address Sonja, e.g. “your radiant ladyship,” “majestic blade mistress,” “our glorious sword princess” or even “she of the excellent cleavage”!

Lee certainly gives it her all, and so do the rest of the cast. It’s just that this needs a far greater range of motion than it gets here. These should be epic battle scenes, drenched wall-to-wall in blood and flying body parts – not still panels, with maybe an arm holding a sword moving slowly across the frame. If this had been the full-on animated feature I was expecting, all the other pieces are in place for it to have surpassed, by far, the woeful Brigitte Neilsen movie. It’s a damn shame the approach taken, instead robs all these aspects of their vitality and energy. What you’re left with falls short of reading the comic, because you have someone else turning the pages.

It’s barely an adequate place-holder for the proposed live-action version. That feature has been circling development hell since it was announced in 2008, with names as diverse as Rose McGowan, Megan Fox and Amber Heard linked to it. Last I heard was Feb 2015, when a new writer came on board. At this point, I’m certainly not holding my breath…

Dir: Gail Simone
Star (voice): Misty Lee, Becca Strom, Shannon Kingston, Tyler Nicol

RWBY

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“Harriet Potter and the F-sized Weapon”

There are occasionally times where our book reviewer Werner’s “split scale” of grades for both artistic merit and action, would come in handy. This is one of those times. For the action scenes here are as glorious as you would expect from the man behind Dead Fantasy, virtuoso symphonies of exquisite hyper-violence, meted out and absorbed by characters and monsters without fear or bias, in ways limited only – and not very much, at that – by the creator’s imagination. Probably inevitably, this overshadows a fairly perfunctory plot, and characters whose characterization is largely defined by the shade they wear. On a split scale, this would merit five stars for both the quantity and quality of action, but likely three or three and a half for artistic merit.

It takes place in the world of Remnant, in a three-cornered struggle between humanity, the monstrous Creatures of Grimm, and the Faunus, who are part-animal, part-human, and largely perceived as second-class citizens, despite their own talents. There’s a substance called “Dust” which has magical powers, and an academy where young men and women train as Hunters and Huntresses, to do battle with the Grimm. The focus is on four teenage girls who are part of this year’s new intake, and who end up forming team RWBY [pronounced “Ruby”]: Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna and Yang Xiao Long: the last is yellow-themed, you should be able to figure out the others. The main nemesis is Roman Torchwick, a terrorist who is working with a group fighting for Faunus’ rights, yet who had entirely his own agenda – as well as some high-powered minions and skills of his own.

Originally a web series, the first and second seasons have now been collected into feature-length collections, and while their episodic nature is occasionally apparent, they probably work better that way. The opening takes a little while to hit its stride, as it has to create the world, introduce the characters and establish the situations. The animation style takes some getting used to: it’s done in CGI, but trying to look like traditional cel animation; some of the resulting movement is almost too smooth, and I find the lack of noses on some of the characters, a bit unsettling. However, the script is well-written, sometimes sharp and witty, occupying a good place between self-awareness and parody. Even the characters that are largely superfluous – and some of the hunters in training could be so described – are less irritating than they might be.

It is, however, all about the action, and it’s clear that all of the other aspects – the plot, the participants and the world they inhabit – exist merely to facilitate the fight scenes, which is where all the work, imagination and energy become truly apparent.  The highlight, for me, in volume one, was a battle at a temple against a series of Grimm, while the second part climaxes with a running fight in, on and around, a train as it hurtles toward the capital city. You forget they are animated, while simultaneously wishing someone would throw $200 million at the studio behind it, Rooster Teeth, and let them make a live-action version. Sadly, creator Oum died of a severe allergic reaction in February this year, although it has been announced that Volume Three of the series will continue. Hopefully, the quality will not suffer, and will be a fitting monument to Oum’s sadly-missed talents.

Dir: Monty Oum
Star (voice): Lindsay Jones, Kara Eberle, Arryn Zech, Barbara Dunkelman

Heavenly Sword

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“Not even deserving a console-ation prize.”

heavenlyswordI wasn’t aware this was based on a video-game, until I started watching it and saw a Sony Playstation credit. In fact, I wasn’t particularly aware that it was animated. Neither would necessarily have made much difference, I guess, but forewarned is forearmed. Maybe knowing the game would make this better? Or maybe not, since that wouldn’t address either of the two main problems here: a storyline crafted entirely from bad pulp fantasy, and animation that works very nicely for action scenes, but is useless at portraying any kind of emotion. To start with the former, there’s a drinking game to be played here: take a swig every time a clichéd story element shows up. On second thoughts, I like my readers unencumbered by alcohol poisoning.

There’s an all-powerful sword, which is guarded by a tribe. Evil king Bohan (Molina) wants the sword, because it, in the hands of the ‘Chosen One’, is prophesied to be the only thing that can destroy him. He attacks the tribe, scattering them to the winds: Noriko (Torv) is given the task of protecting the sword, and bringing it to her half-brother, Loki (Jane) who is the intended bearer. Except, of course, he isn’t where he’s supposed to be, having left his village to become – oh, the irony – a blacksmith in the massive fortress complex belonging to Bohan. So, Noriko, along with sister Kai (Ball), who refers to herself in an irritating third-person way like Gollum with cat-ears, have to head into the heart of enemy territory, with Bohan in hot lukewarm pursuit. However, the ‘Chosen One’ turns out not to be who we’ve been told at all.

This is my unsurprised face.

I don’t like the CGI style here: for too much of the time, this like watching a cut scene from a video game. There are occasional interludes of more-traditional animation and this works rather better: I’d prefer to have seen the whole thing done that way, to be honest. However, I will admit that, when in motion, the flaws are much less obvious, and the final battle, pitting Noriko against an army is impressive; it’s actually credible that she could kick their ass, more or less by herself. The ending does go in a different direction from what was expected, and has a certain poignancy, albeit spoiled by an unnecessary sequel-generating scene during the end titles. Torv and the other voice actors do what they can, but that isn’t much, given their characters’ faces express about as much emotion as an anaesthetized Shaolin monk. The late Roger Ebert once famously said that video games “can never be art.” While I disagree with him, for a number of reasons not relevant here, watching this, I can kinda see from where he was coming.

Dir: Gun Ho Jang
Star (voice): Anna Torv, Alfred Molina, Ashleigh Ball, Thomas Jane

Hullabaloo: Animated steampunk action heroine seeking your support

hullabaloo2Currently running on IndieGogo is this campaign to assist in the funding of an animated feature, Hullabaloo, which hopes to resurrect the virtually dead art of traditional, 2-D, hand-drawn animation. Even Studio Ghibli, the home of animation deity Hayao Miyazaki, seems to be heading that way, and it’s easy to understand why: it’s an astonishingly intensive process. The president of Ghibli once estimated that all his company’s resources, going full bore, could produce five minutes of feature-quality animation a month. No wonder the trend is increasingly toward CGI. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the best works of Pixar show that story and characterization are more important than medium. But the loss of cel animation takes a tool away from the storytellers, and I personally find CGI still falls short when it comes to depicting human emotions accurately.

Hullabaloo was created by James Lopez, with animation by Bruce Smith, both long-time veterans of the industry, who worked on some of Disney’s classics, including The Lion King, Tarzan and The Emperor’s New Groove. Now, they’ve gone independent, and are looking to raise money for this project – it has really taken off, with the campaign already having raised more than three times its initial goal, with almost three weeks still left. But why is it of interest here? Well, if the pic on the right hasn’t given that away, because it promises to kick the arse of most Disney – or, indeed, most animated – films, in terms of its strong heroine. Here’s the synopsis, which sounds more than slightly like Adele Blanc-Sec, in terms of atmosphere and settings:

Hullabaloo is the story of Veronica Daring, a brilliant young scientist who returns home from an elite finishing school to find her father–the eccentric inventor Jonathan Daring–missing without a trace! The only clue left behind points Veronica toward Daring Adventures, an abandoned amusement park used by her father to test his fantastical steam-powered inventions. There she discovers a strange girl named Jules, a fellow inventor who agrees to help Veronica in locating her missing father and discovering the secrets of his work.

Together, Veronica and Jules learn that Jonathan Daring has been kidnapped by a mysterious group of influential persons, who seek to use his latest invention for nefarious purposes. These villains are wealthy and influential and neither Veronica nor Jules can stop them openly. But determined to save her father and holding true to the family creed that technology should be used for the good of all, not the greed of some, Veronica assumes the secret identity of “Hullabaloo”, a goggled crusader who uses wits and science to combat evil and oppose the nefarious conspiracy that has taken her father.

Got to love a story which also appears to be pro-science, as well as intent on providing a strong female role model for kids, something which isn’t as common as it should be [and even when it appears, can end up going off the rails – see Brave for example, which started an awful lot stronger than it finished]. Yeah, latching on to the steampunk trend does perhaps seem a little too bandwagon-jumping. But if you’re going to use an “antique” style like cel animation, then it does perhaps make more sense to put it into a period setting. And, it has to be said, there hasn’t been a “true” steampunk feature released for a while: there have been some with steampunk elements e.g. Sherlock Holmes, or even the version of The Three Musketeers made by Paul W.S. Anderson. But this seems a good deal more full-on, and can only be applauded as such. Of course, there’s a long way to go from where they are now, with the quarter of a million raised a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the full feature. Hopefully, it’ll end up both getting made, and looking as cool as it has the potential to be.
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Brave

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Brave, but too much heart?”

I was immensely stoked for Brave on a number of levels. First, Pixar kicks ass. With the exception of the underwhelming Cars and its pointless sequel, the quality of their work speaks for itself: Monsters, Inc is close to the finest animated movie of all time. Secondly, genuine action heroine films for the whole family are rare, to the point that they can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand over the past 25 years. Thirdly, it’s Scotland. Y’know, where I’m from. It’s the bit at the top of England. I feel I should mention this, because Pixar had originally tabbed Reese Witherspoon to voice the teenage, Scottish heroine, Merida. Fortunately, scheduling prevented this, and Pixar ended up with an all-Scottish lead cast.

I also note the somewhat troubled production: despite two names getting directorial credit, this wasn’t a co-direction. Mark Andrews replacing Brenda Chapman as a result of what Chapman called “creative differences.” This was certainly an embarrassment to Pixar, who had long been criticized for their very male-dominated output, and had made a big fuss about Brave, not just featuring a female heroine, but also written and directed by a woman. The problem, according to Andrews, was that the story was unfocused. He said, “Whose story it was – whether it was Merida or her mom’s story or Merida choosing which parent she was going to be more like – these things weren’t working.” Chapman was unimpressed, telling the NY Times, “To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.”

Does this impact the final movie? It’s hard to see how it couldn’t, either through a compromise of the original vision, or as a result of the realization, mid-way through production, that it wasn’t working. Not that it’s alone – many Pixar movies have had bumpy journeys to the screen. But in this case, the end result was greeted with muted box-office success. It seems odd to describe a movie that grossed $235 million as a disappointment, but Brave showed a lot less “legs” than most Pixar films. Almost all have gathered total US box-office receipts four times or better than their opening “wide” weekend. Brave’s multiplier, of 3.56, is ahead of only the woeful Cars 2 (2.89) in studio history.

Not to say it’s bad, because it certainly isn’t. Pixar have an absolute and complete handle on the technical aspects: even in 2D, this is the best-animated (if not necessarily the “best animated”) film of 2012. The landscapes are lush to the point of seeming photographic, the characters are richly-detailed, down to the last red-haired ringlet on Merida’s head, and in motion, you remember why Pixar is #1. And there are plenty of moments where everything comes together. Witness the sequence below, depicting a contest between three suitors to win the hand of Merica. It is filled with 100% pure awesome, climaxing with the heroine’s declaration, “I am Merida, and I’ll be shooting for my own hand,” before she literally bursts out of the confines of princessly expectations.

The problems are more with plotting – basically, the issue described above by Chapman is still present. The story starts in one direction, looking suitably action-oriented. It’s difficult to provide any specifics without giving spoilers – there’s a major plot-point not even hinted at in the trailers, which certainly surprised me. But I can see that it abruptly changes direction in the middle, going in a much less satisfactory direction, that seems almost to push Merida into the background of her own story. Even the climax relies less on any innate abilities of our heroine, such as her much-touted archery, or even her temperament, more the fortuitous toppling of a large geological entity [I doubt the film would have sold quite as well had it been named “Lucky”].

This conclusion is set up by the sort of happy compromise that is only deemed acceptable by both sides in fairy stories – anyone who has had a teenage daughter can vouch for this. I also have some qualms about the arranged marriage subplot that drives the first half of the film, which is depicted as little more than a “You’re going to do your homework, young lady, whether you like it or not” kind of way, which seems facile and dubious, even for a Disney-produced cartoon. And the introduction of “magic”, for the first time in a Pixar film, allows for the sort of convenient story developments that does nothing but weaken the overall structure. It’s not even a magical universe, instead, it’s more or less a one-shot deal, necessary to the plot.

It does fairly well in avoiding the Scottish clichés: one haggis joke, a random act of indecent exposure, and a soundtrack which oozes wannabe tartan are about it. The lack of any romantic love interest for the heroine is delightfully refreshing, and the lead actors all do a very, very good job in their roles, bringing their characters to life beautifully, to a degree that you can’t imagine any other voices coming out of their mouths. [I repeat: Reese Witherspoon?] It’s not boring. but fails to engross in the way that the better Pixar movies invariably succeed in doing. I got to the end entertained, but without any real sense of investment in Merida or her fate. Put bluntly: I just didn’t care about her, and the film succeeded mostly as a commercial for the Scottish Tourist Board. As a dramatic entity on its own merits, this falls somewhere between Brother Bear and Freaky Friday.

Dir: Mark Andrews + Brenda Chapman
Star (voice): Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto

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“Suzi-X Marks The Spot.”

Rob Zombie has had an interesting career, to say the least. From the early days as the front-man of heavy-metal band White Zombie, through his own solo work [heavily influenced by B-movies], and then on into his movies. That started with the fairly-crap House of 1000 Corpses, then the better Devil Rejects, and then his remakes of the first two Halloween movies, which were ok, as remakes of horror classics go. And then there’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, an animated feature which I stumbled across on cable. Well, actually, Chris did: “I Tivo’d a movie for you,” she said. And, surprisingly, she stayed for the entire thing, and appeared to enjoy this animated feature. Which is odd, because it has much the same gleeful, excessive insanity as Bitch Slap, which she walked out on.

Based on a comic-book series, the focus is, at least, theoretically, El Superbeasto (Papa), a masked luchador and part-time exploitation film-director, whose opinion of his own talents is certainly not modest. Superbeasto gets involved with the the evil plans of Dr. Satan (Giamatti), who kidnaps foul-mouthed stripper Velvet Von Black (Dawson), because if he marries her, he’ll get all the powers of the devil. El Superbeasto and his sister Suzi X (Moon Zombie) have to stop Dr. Satan, before he can destroy the world. And it’s thanks to the latter that this film effortlessly slides into GWG territory. Imagine a soft(ish) porn version of those insurance ads with Erin Esurance kicking butt. Except, with far larger breasts, much more gore and a sidekick of a horny, transforming robot. Er, ok: not really like those insurance ads at all, then.

Zombie was responsible for the Werewolf Women of the SS faux-trailer in Grindhouse, and brings much the same gleeful approach to proceedings here. Indeed, we first see Suzi-X kidnapping the head of Hitler, which is kept alive in a jar (as in They Saved Hitler’s Brain), and then has to escape by fighting her way through a massive pack of Nazi zombies (that’d be from Shock Waves). Carnage ensues, as it pretty much does, any time Suzi-X is on the screen, which is a lot – she gets far more of the action than El Superbeasto does. Proceedings culminate in a lengthy, slo-mo catfight, entirely necessary to the plot, between her and Von Black, while the soundtrack cheerily informs us that “It’s OK to jerk off to cartoons – the Japanese do it every day – so rub one out for the USA…”

Yeah, the soundtrack. By comic due Hard ‘n’ Phirm, it’s certainly worthy of note, providing a sardonic commentary throughout. Witness the play-by-play as Suzi-X takes on the Nazi zombies, or as it bemoans the shameless ripoff of Carrie which is the finale. An appreciation of genre – particularly, horror movies – of the past eighty years or longer, will also help, as will as realizing this is not to be taken at all seriously. It’s definitely not for kids, or the easily offended: copious female nudity, violence, swearing and generally questionable attitudes. It reminded me of Ralph Bakshi cartoons, such as Fritz the Cat, just much more tongue-in-cheek.

If anything, it may be a little too hyper and frenetic. We ended up taking a break in the middle, and chilling out with coffee and muffins before returning for the second-half. Throwing together everything but the kitchen sink as far as style, content and approach goes, it remains a thoroughly entertaining piece of trash cinema. While the supposed hero is actually not very interesting, and largely unlikeable, Suzi-X is a fabulous action heroine, whom I’d enjoy seeing more of [not that there’s much you don’t see of her here, if you know what I mean, and I think you do…] Check out the clip below for some idea of what to expect.

Dir: Rob Zombie
Star (voice): Tom Papa, Sheri Moon Zombie, Paul Giamatti, Rosario Dawson

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Mulan (animation)

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“Here be drag-ons…”

Disney movies are not the usual place to find action heroines: their classic woman is a princess, who sits in a castle and waits for someone of appropriately-royal blood to come and rescue her from whatever evil fate (wicked stepmother, poisoned spinning wheel, etc.) that has befallen her.

The first inklings of a change to this traditional attitude came in 1991 with Beauty and the Beast, where Belle was an independent-minded young lady who rejected the advances of the handsomely square-jawed hero, because he was an idiotic jerk. Unfortunately, the moral was somewhat diluted by the end when – and I trust I’m not spoiling this for anyone – the Beast turns into a rather convincing facsimile of said handsomely square-jawed hero. So, looks are everything, after all… Much more successful was their 1998 attempt, Mulan, recently released for the first time on DVD, which took a traditional Chinese legend about a girl who dresses as a man to join the army, and converted it into the traditional Disney animated feature format, complete with songs and amusing sidekick. Given the studio’s previous track record (hey, why bother paying writers to come up with new stories, when there’s public domain ones to rape?), qualms here are understandable. Perhaps most memorably, Disney gave Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid a happy ending, though turning Quasimodo into a lovable Happy Meal probably comes close – that whirring sound you hear is Victor Hugo spinning in his grave.

And, yes, liberties were taken, though to be fair, you expect this in any screenplay – especially one whose story originally appeared in a poem written by an anonymous Chinese author around the 5th or 6th century AD. [See one translation. The poem also appears on the DVD, but without any attribution or context; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written by a Mousketeer] From here sprang a whole raft of tales, with different eras, locations or surnames, largely dependent on the author’s feelings, but having several common threads. The story takes place over more than a decade, and Mulan’s identity isn’t discovered until she has finally returned home and resumed her normal life.

There’s also no threat of execution when her deception is found out – Chinese culture may perhaps actually have a more tolerant approach to such things, though this is admittedly going only by the likes of Peking Opera, and a good chunk of Brigitte Lin’s career. And, of course, both the romantic angle and amusing sidekick were modern additions. This contrasts sharply with one version of the original, which has the Emperor hearing of Mulan’s exploits, and demanding she becomes his concubine. Mulan commits suicide in preference to this fate, an ending that, for some reason, didn’t make it into the Disney adaptation…

Perhaps the surprising thing is that there haven’t been more movie adaptations of the story – contrast the literally hundreds of movies based on Wong Fei-Hung. There have been a couple, most notably 1960’s The Lady General Hua Mu Lan, directed by Yue Fung, and starring Ling Buo as Mulan (real-life husband Jing Han played General Li). Before that was Maiden in Armor starring Nancy Chan, made in 1937, largely as propaganda to rally the Chinese against the Japanese. The most recent version was in 1999; Yang Pei-Pei’s 48 episode TV series starred Anita Yuen as Mulan [photo, right]. However, over the past couple of years, no less than three versions have been rattling around in development hell. The most eagerly anticipated one stars Michelle Yeoh as Mulan, with Chow Yun-Fat co-starring. The director is uncertain (Peter Pau and Christophe Gans are most often mentioned) and production still hasn’t started, even though it was announced back in July 2001; recent reports now have it scheduled to begin filming early next year.

Stanley Tong has also been working on The Legend of Mulan; the original plan was to shoot this in English, with Lucy Liu and The Rock as Mulan and the Hun general respectively, but this may have fallen through; with Tong now working on the next Jackie Chan film, this one seems to be on the back-burner. Finally, a Korean version, with either Jeon Ji Hyun (My Sassy Girl) or Zhang Zi-Yi, was scheduled, but not much has been heard about this lately. The Disney version, on the other hand, just came out on DVD for the first time – in part, I suspect, to act as marketing for the forthcoming, inevitable Mulan II. The trailer for the sequel is on the Mulan DVD, but Lady and the Tramp II, The Little Mermaid II, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II and Aladdin II should give you an idea of how wonderful Mulan II will be. [It’s going straight to video, of course, but it does at least have Ming-Na Wen. No Eddie Murphy though.]

That’s a shame, because the original still has a great deal to offer. Unlike many Disney films, the songs don’t bring proceedings to a grinding halt and are notably absent from the second half of the film. Indeed, the transition is deliberately abrupt: a band of happy, singing warriors is stopped mid-verse when they come across a burnt-out village which the Huns have exterminated (right). It’s a simple, but highly effective moment, where silence says a lot more than any words. [At one point a song for Mulan about the tragedy of war was considered, but this was dropped, along with Mushu’s song, Keep ‘Em Guessing – both decisions which can only be applauded.]

Obviously, in terms of action, it’s hamstrung by the G-certificate (though the British censors insisted on a headbutt being removed to get the equivalent ‘U’-rating), but allowing for this, it’s still got some exciting scenes, and the first encounter between Mulan and the Hun army is fabulous by any measure. It also avoids the pitfall of many a Disney film – making the villains more memorable than the main characters. [Everyone remembers Cruella DeVille from 101 Dalmatians; but can you name the hero?] Here, Shan-Yu is almost a caricature, but does what’s necessary quickly, allowing the other characters to be developed more completely, and compared to other Disney heroines, Mulan may be the most well-rounded human being.

Of course, Eddie Murphy comes close to stealing the show as demoted family guardian, Mushu. Unlike Shrek, where the competition for laughs with Mike Myers was painfully clear, Ming-Na Wen is content to be the straight “man”, and the film benefits as a result. Murphy’s accent is entirely anachronistic, naturally, but that’s half the fun – interestingly, the American DVD offers the option of a Mandarin soundtrack, which is a nice option. We did try it for a bit, but the Chinese Mushu just didn’t have the life and energy of Murphy, and we soon switched back. [HK singer CoCo Lee plays Mulan, while Jackie Chan is the voice of Shang in both this and the Cantonese versions] The tunes are perhaps not quite “classic” Disney, in the sense that they don’t stay in your brain for years after, to explode at the most inappropriate moments. They’re still fairly hummable though, and Jerry Goldsmith’s Eastern-tinged score compliments the similarly Oriental-flavoured animation well. The makers clearly did a lot of research, thought it does have to be said, the film does not exactly portray Chinese culture in a particularly good light; Mulan, the heroine, is shown as rebelling against it in almost every way. One reviewer describes its basic theme as, “a woman with western values overcoming the oppression of a backwards Chinese civilization.” Ouch.

However, personally, I’d say the value of having a clearly non-Caucasian heroine (a first for any Disney film) outweighs relatively minor quibbles about subtext. It may be the last great hand-drawn animated feature from the studio which invented the genre, and all but defined it for sixty years, so I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this as an empowering and highly entertaining tale for children – of any age, but especially those too young to read subtitles. There aren’t many action heroine films our entire family loves, but Mulan is definitely high on the list.

Dir: Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook
Star: Ming-na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D.Wong, Soon-Tek Oh

Kim Possible: The Secret Files

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“A semi-random grab-bag of bits and pieces. Coherent – no. Amusing – most definitely.”

This compilation puts together four episodes – three from the first season, plus another at the time exclusive to the DVD. It’s hard to see who this is aimed at: if you’ve not seen the series, novices may find elements, such as Ron’s naked mole rat, kinda bizarre (trivia note: the rat’s squeaks are by Nancy Cartwright, who also does some loser called Bart Simpson). On the other hand, fans will have seen almost all the material, and would likely far rather have seen a complete Box Set rather than semi-random episodes. They’re not even particularly highly-regarded ones: the TVTome viewers’ poll ranks only one in the Top 20. However, it’s still the smartest thing on the Disney Channel, and easily kept the GWG viewing panel (ages from 19 to forty-coughhackwheeze) entertained.

The first episode, Attack of the Killer Bebes, is the best, I’d say. Ron wants to be a cheerleader, while Kim’s dad is kidnapped by the evil Dr. Drakken, who has built three fem-bots in order to…er, do something. It illustrates the central idea of KP – Kim’s Sisyphean struggle to balance home, school and fighting evil – with beautifully surreal moments, such as Drakken’s quest for a phone-book to prove that Possible is a common surname. Downhill, the second ep, works less well; it’s too group-huggy, teetering on the edge of sickly. But the concept of D.N.Amy, a toy collector and crazed bio-geneticist intent in making live version of her plush pals, is enough to keep things interesting.

Third is Partners, where Kim is paired with the class genius for a science project, while Drakken and D.N. Amy team up, with the following immortal exchange:
D.N.Amy: ”But I’m all about cute and cuddly!”
Dr. D: “Have you ever tried vicious and bloodthirsty?”
D.N.Amy: “Do you think I’d like it?”
Finally, tucked away in the special features, there’s Crush: how it all began, though with surprisingly little insight into Kim’s origins as a superheroic teenager. She springs, fully formed, taking on Drakken’s giant robot and asking her crush, voiced by Breckin Meyer, to the dance. Overall, it’s a cute package, but you’d probably be better off starting with A Sitch in Time, and waiting (hopefully…) for that Season One box set.

Star: Christy Carlson Romano, Will Friedle, John DiMaggio, Melissa McCarthy

Kim Possible: A Sitch in Time

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“Somewhere between Alias, Buffy and The Powerpuff Girls lurks Kim…”

“I’m working with a man named Monkey Fist. My evil career is so in the toilet!” Thus complains one villain in the first Kim Possible movie, a relentless barrage of sight gags and dry humour likely to amuse those of any age, whether regular viewers or not. We probably fall into the latter category, having a natural aversion to the Disney Channel [if you’ve seen the Lilo & Stich series, you’ll understand], but KP is a show likely to pause our channel surfing. Kim is a teenage girl who spends more time saving the world from a range of bizarre bad guys and gals, than the usual pursuits involving the bathroom, phone or mall (if our daughter is anything to go by). Her parents are remarkably cool about these extra-curricular activities. In this edition, the bad guys team up to grab a time-travel device and alter the future so they can rule the world. It’s up to Kim and friends to restore things. [Should mention the title is as given, “sitch” being Kim-speak for situation, as in “What’s the sitch?”]

It does remain a Disney show, hence the irritating musical interludes and, while the action is fast and furious, no-one ever gets hurt – though the sequence where a naked mole-rat comes out of a kid’s trousers is frankly freaky. But assisted by a stellar supporting cast (Elliott Gould, Michael Dorn, Dakota Fanning, Michael Clarke Duncan, Vivica A. Fox and – slightly less stellar – Freddie Prinze Jr.), this is a great parody of the whole genre: as one character says, “Time travel – it’s a cornucopia of disturbing concepts.” The tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is a delight, both heroes and villains having a refreshingly world-weary attitude, cheerfully admitting the paradoxes inherent in the story. Even an evil, golfing, kilt-wearing Scot comes over as endearing rather than insulting – Mike Myers, please note. The expected fluff blends with some surprisingly dark moments, such as the “Re-education Center” which seems right out of 1984. This is what the Tomb Raider movies should have been like.

Dir: Steve Loter
Star: Christy Carlson Romano, Will Friedle, Richard Gilliland, Nicole Sullivan

Aeon Flux (animation)

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“State of flux”

Difficult though it may be to credit, especially for younger readers, there was a time when watching MTV could actually be interesting occasionally, back in the days when the station had its own animation division. The best-known product to seep out was Beavis and Butthead, but more interesting was Aeon Flux, perhaps the most dense and impenetrable animated series to reach a wide audience – even if the general reaction was “Eh?”

It debuted as part of Liquid Television, and right from the start, makes an impression with its lack of dialogue, weird design and astonishingly high body-count. The first series of mini-eps depicted the mission of an apparent secret agent, Aeon Flux, who comes within moments of solving the case of a mysterious epidemic, only to meet an untimely death. Undaunted, the second series had a variety of cases, whose only real linking theme was the repeated untimely death of Aeon.

aeonanThen MTV commissioned some 25-minute episodes, and things inevitably started to mutate. The characters started to speak (gasp!), but anyone who thought this meant it would become easy to understand was in for a shock – if anything, it added an extra new dimension of complexity. More of the setting was exposed: two countries, Monica and Bregna, of opposite character and once united, but now in perpetual tension. Extra characters were added, most notably Trevor Goodchild, the Breen leader, whose relationship with Aeon (a Monican “agent”?) is perhaps the central focus of the series.

“What I was trying to go for was a kind of ambivalence.” So said creator Peter Chung, and as ambivalence goes, there’s little doubt he succeeded – rarely has a show hidden its light quite as effectively. Very little is laid out for easy consumption, and each episode repays, and indeed demands, repeat viewings. Every action and line of dialogue sometimes seems to have multiple meanings.

If it has a weakness, it is perhaps too obscurist, and you wonder whether the show is quite as deep as it wants you to think. In addition, there are parts which, however stylish, just don’t seem to make sense. But Aeon is a fabulous character, who in the words of Chung, “is not someone who reacts to things. She makes things happen…she’s a force for change as opposed to the status quo”, and the combination of intelligence and malevolent brute force is immensely appealing. Chung again: “I think it’s undeniable that there’s a certain glamour or a certain seductive power of violence on film. Her whole design and the way she looks, the way she moves is engineered purely to evoke that attraction.”

A feature version of Aeon Flux has occasionally been hinted at (Liz Hurley would seem a leading candidate for any live-action version!), but at the moment seems somewhat unlikely, especially with MTV having now folded their Animation Division. Chung has moved on too, first to work on Phantom 2040, whose characters are clearly cut from the same cloth, in their spidery style, and then off to the Far East, for an animated series based on the life of, I kid you not, Alexander the Great. Whether anything created in his future will be as memorable, intense and downright impenetrable as Aeon Flux is surely in doubt.

Creator: Peter Chung
Star: (voice) Denise Poirier, John Rafter Lee