PREVIEW: Turning Red

Turning Red is a new Pixar movie available to watch on Disney+! The movie was released on March 11th, and features a Chinese Canadian 13-year old named Mei Lee. The film explores the tension between the chaos of adolescence and being a dutiful daughter. Themes of individualism versus family values seem apparent, a struggle many second-gen children of immigrants can speak to. 

So far, I’ve heard mixed opinions about the film. After the trailer came out, there were a few letterboxd reviews that expressed elements of the trailer that rubbed them the wrong way. Specifically, some expressed disappointment with the film’s ancestral magic trope, which may arguably reinforce outdated views of Chinese people. Mei’s illustration also looks somewhat white, and once she gains her ability to turn into a red panda, her hair also turns red, which some expressed, erases any asian features that were there in the first place. This transformation coinciding with her gaining confidence was an aspect some felt uncomfortable with.

However, despite hearing negative reactions, I’m going to go into the film with an open mind. As someone who has a protective, overbearing mom, (like the protagonist) I feel like I’ll be able to relate to this film. I really enjoyed Domee Shi’s short film, Bao, which made her the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar, so when I heard that she’s coming out with a movie, I was super hyped. It’s great to see representation of both women and AAPI creators at Pixar, so I can’t wait to watch this film!

REVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s newest film, and it has a lot of firsts for Disney: it is their first film to be inspired by Southeast Asian culture, it has a unique score, and it even looks and feels like a video game at times. But, despite these firsts, the film is quintessentially Disney. It features goofy side characters and has some corny dialogue, and its overall message makes it a Disney film at heart. The titular heroine, Raya, seeks the last dragon, who she hopes will vanquish the menacing Druun monsters that have been ravaging her home. Raya belongs to one of five tribes that had previously been united under the land of Kumandra, but were divided by the arrival of the Druun. Raya’s adventures take her through Kumandra, where she witnesses the widespread effects of the very monsters that have been devastating her own home.

The overall message of the film can probably be ascertained by this premise alone; audiences have a pretty good idea of what lesson the characters will learn early on in the film. As the runtime is just under two hours, the story and Raya’s development feel very simple. Perhaps the film could have focused exclusively on Raya and her foil introducing a kind of complexity and grey area Disney does not explore as often. That being said, the film is not overly predictable, nor does lack redeemable qualities.

Most of the film’s strengths are technical. The film features a beautiful soundtrack, with whimsical themes for the fantastical moments, and also lively themes to accompany the thrilling action sequences. It’s amazing to see how much Disney’s animation has evolved over the years as this film showcases some of Disney’s most exciting fight scenes to date. There is a battle near the end of the film that is flawless – Raya’s rage comes across so strongly just from the lead-up, locking audiences in for the actual fight.

Whenever Disney is praised for their diversity, it can always be called into question. The film’s creators took great care to travel to Southeast Asia as well as hire cultural consultants, however the majority of the principal voice cast is East Asian. East Asian roles in film are already minimal, but there are even fewer opportunities for Southeast Asian actors. Though the film celebrates Southeast Asian culture, the casting can come across as a misstep. The film is streaming on Disney+, which is not currently available in Southeast Asia. However, the voice of Raya, Kelly Marie Tran, is the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to voice a lead role in an animated Disney movie. Tran was harassed online by Star Wars fans following her breakthrough role in The Last Jedi, only to be written to the side in the trilogy’s conclusion. Despite this, Tran has persevered, and her determination makes her the perfect fit for the role of Raya.

Raya and the Last Dragon is imperfect, but it is a worthy film that teaches trust and forgiveness to kids in the most Disney way possible.

REVIEW: WandaVision

Is WandaVision the internet’s favorite TV show right now because it’s the best thing on TV, or is just the only thing on TV? WandaVision is a new Disney+ original series that follows the characters Wanda Maximoff and Vision, who had not been featured in their own solo MCU projects up until this point. Starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, the series riffs off of TV sitcoms through the decades, depicting Wanda and Vision trying to fit in with suburban life, only to discover that not everything is as it seems.

What makes the series so enticing is that it provides a much-needed release from the worn-out Marvel movie formula. WandaVision sticks out from the rest of the MCU stylistically, but it simultaneously patches up pre-existing plot holes in the MCU canon. The series explores some of the direct effects of the events of “The Blip” in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but mostly importantly, it proves Wanda and Visions’ each have a place in the MCU. Wanda and Vision have both been minor characters thus far, and their characters lacked personality and motivation as they were bounced around from director to director. I was excited when Wanda was first introduced as a new female character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but she was subsequently pushed to the side and thrown into a seemingly rushed romance with Vision, who had just as little development. However, creator and head writer, Jac Schaeffer, has dug into the characters’ messy foundation, revealing their complexity and prepping them with compelling characterization for their future in the MCU.

Although Wanda and Vision are both fantastical individuals with extreme, otherworldly abilities, Schaeffer has highlighted their sense of humanity in this crazy fictional world by crafting a heart-breaking story about their bond. This transforms Wanda and Vision into characters that audiences can empathize with rather than dismiss as lovebirds that were thrown into the film franchise as an afterthought. Episode 8, “Previously On,” delves into Wanda’s past, explaining her choices that were previously glossed over, and provides context for her connection to Vision. The episode is seemingly specific to Wanda and the toll Vision’s death in Infinity War took on her, but the episode also acts as a general representation of grief. The episode is timely, showing that even something as silly as a sitcom can provide some sense of comfort during troubling times.

That being said, the penultimate episode of a miniseries is a strange place to insert a backstory episode. If the episode had not been so beautifully written or if it had not provided the much-needed backstory for the series’ titular characters, I would have been more upset with the pacing of the show. The show’s plot is rather slow most of the time with a sudden cliffhanger at the end of each episode. This has been upsetting for some fans, who have spent the past seven weeks developing elaborate theories, only to be underwhelmed by the show’s conclusion. However, I have come around to the way the series progressed – but only after I realized exactly what the show was about. The show is about wise Vision, who is an android created with artificial intelligence, yet he is the character who best understands human emotion and empathy. And it is about loving Wanda, who is not an object in need of protection, but someone who discovers strength in emotion.

PREVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s newest film, set to drop on Disney+ Premier Access tomorrow, March 5th. The film has been marketed as inspired by Southeast Asian culture, and stars Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran.

Raya’s story takes place in the fictional world Kumandra, a land where dragons used to roam and live in harmony with humans. 500 years later, Raya is tasked with tracking down the last dragon to stop the sinister monsters that wiped out the dragons in the first place.

I’m excited to see that this film is based on a culture Disney has not explored yet, but I am wary they are just checking off a box on their diversity quota list. The voice cast is primarily East Asian, which is disappointing given that Southeast Asian actors have been presented with fewer opportunities than East Asians actors in Hollywood. That being said, I have seen a lot of positive buzz and excitement towards the character designs in the film, and I’m generally glad Disney is making some sort of an effort to represent more of its audience.

Raya and the Last Dragon will be available to stream to those with a Disney+ subscription for an additional $29.99.

REVIEW: Mary Poppins

It’s a real tall order to ask a live performance to be able to make magic in front of their audience’s eyes, and you can bet none of these 100+ Burns Parks Elementary students are much over 4’10”.

Somehow, the group of kids, with the help of a few adult actors, crew, and directors, did just that. From the wondrous costume design to the joyful choreography, this production succeeded in every meaning of the word.

While I might usually stick to metrics of artistry and professionalism to review a performance, this production of Mary Poppins is impossible to judge that way. It was just too darn adorable. Exhibit A is to your right. Image may contain: 4 people, people sitting, hat, child, stripes, outdoor and closeup

Emily Betz is the magician behind the costume design, which really brought the show together. The way she balances bold, whimsical colors without it being too brash or distracting is amazing. It’s no wonder she specializes in all things Disney. It takes a special, rare kind of person to so perfectly embody childishness as art in the way she does. The fact that just about everything was handmade was shocking, and I’m sure a great joy to the financial aspect of the project.Image may contain: 1 person, indoor

The show also featured a Queen Victoria cameo by community theatre devotee Fredda Clisham, a centennial and all-around fabulous lady. She has been in Burns Park Players shows for the past 15 years, and is known for a move where she coyly pushes up her breasts, a tradition with origins in a previous play’s improvised scene.

Several other Burns Park Players veterans were also involved in the production. The director, Rachel Carpman, has been coming to see the group’s plays since 1994. Omkar Karthikeyan, is a parent of one of the young actors, but rather than simply driving his second-grader to play practice, he got fully involved. He played the chimney sweep Bert in the production, and was totally, completely his character. As energetic as the children both on stage and in rehearsals, he is surely a permanent member of the Players family.

All of this hard work coming from a crew of around 200 children and adults is lovely to see. Local theatre groups are a gift to a community, truly. The pressure is low, but the belief in the art is great. The art of pretending, of community-building, of creating something so earnestly certainly is a magic of its own, perhaps even rivaling our favorite nanny. You can take a child’s enthusiasm for granted maybe, but the adults are also so clearly passionate about the troupe. So much joy is lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood, but some things have the power to save us. The creativity involved in a story like Mary Poppins is strong, between the costumes and the flying away via umbrella and the floating quality of the songs. It brings the performers, crew, and audience together with a present-tense nostalgia unlike anything else.

Note: As my pictures were of bad quality, taken far from the stage, I borrowed a few from what was posted on the Burns Park Players Facebook page. Photo credit to Kara Cuoio.

REVIEW: Frozen 2

Warning: mild spoilers for both Frozen 2 and Rise of Skywalker. This warning will make sense in context.

While I was buying the tickets for this movie, my friend said “Quick q. So you’re here. I’m here. And our other friend is here. Why aren’t we watching Uncut Gems?” And I found myself asking that question multiple times throughout or viewing of Frozen 2.

Frozen 2 was an unnecessary sequel and it was confusing, and it also had the same plot as Rise of Skywalker: a young woman with mysterious powers that nobody else has and that she cannot properly control finds out her grandfather is evil. She then embarks on a solo quest to understand both who she is and how to fully utilize her powers. A young man, while waiting for the young woman to come back from her solo quest, meets someone of a similar background as him and they talk about being sensitive to/having conversations with strange forces/reindeer – things that do not actually talk back to these individuals (a bit of a reach, I know, but hear me out on this next part). During the solo quest, the young woman crosses treacherous waters to reach an abandoned wreck from a previous film.

Now, you may be wondering, which movie was better? I preferred Star Wars because I found Frozen to be quite confusing at times. I did not understand a lot of basic plot points, which I don’t think is the mark of a good movie. The premise of the film is that Anna and Elsa have to free the Enchanted Forest, but they never made it entirely clear what they were freeing the Forest from. The Forest is closed off from the rest of the world by a force field that is never referred to again, even when the curse (?) is lifted. In fact, certain characters leave the forest area at some points during the movie even though the force field should be keeping them in the forest.

I felt like the movie was, in general, unnecessarily vague. It doesn’t really feel like there’s a point to Anna and Elsa’s quest – they’re chasing after a mysterious voice that only Elsa can hear, and when she stumbles upon the truth about her powers, the truth is kind of irrelevant. The truth about the origin of her powers is not significant at all when she and Anna finally save the day. The movie tries very hard to be mysterious to keep the audience engaged, but they never explain anything, and shrug off any plot holes by trying to distract the audience with Olaf and a cute fire-breathing lizard.

Maybe I thought the first film was leagues better than its sequel because I’m not exactly part of the target audience anymore. Judging by the squeals of joy and high-pitched laughter, the kids in the audience seemed to enjoy the movie. However, I did enjoy some aspects of the film. Elsa’s two new songs, “Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself” showcase Idina Menzel’s incredible talent and vocal range, proving she always fails to disappoint Visually, this film has some stunning animation, especially the scene where Elsa is crossing turbulent waters, creating platforms of ice to run across. In another scene, Elsa is exploring a dark cave-like area which is actually supposed to be an ancient river, and her surroundings are black but contrasted with blue and purple geometric ice crystals. This scene was also reminiscent of the scene in The Last Jedi when Rey falls into the pit and goes through a series of visions, but I digress.

Overall, Frozen 2 is not a bad movie. The first one is 100% the better film and there was really no need for a sequel, but if you don’t take it seriously, it can be enjoyable. The music is great as expected, and it is a very visually appealing film. Still, I wouldn’t recommend you rush to the theater right this second to watch it.