Pop Culture Roundup

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the film itself. I was a bit surprised: the movie felt oddly flat. Perhaps because it suffered from the same problem that the first two Harry Potter films had, an overly literal approach to adapting the book. Here the wisdom of Peter Jackson’s take on Lord of the Rings really becomes apparent, the need to make the source fit to the medium’s possibilities. There was nothing wrong with the film, but it didn’t really tug at me either. It may also be that Lion is itself a somewhat flat book: a modest little fairytale, and not much more. Narnia was and is a favorite place to revisit, but it never quite had the command of my imagination that some other books did. (Please, please, someone make Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books into films, if the rights can be rescued from whatever intricate state they were left in by the animated Black Cauldron.) The other thing that occurred to me is that the battle at the end of Lion so recalled some of the action sequences of LOTR that it lost some of its ability to surprise. A few particular things: Lucy and Edmund were superbly cast. Liam Neeson’s voice works as Aslan, and they managed to animate Aslan very well, to get the warmth and richness of his look right. I liked the portrayal of the Witch, but her costume designer really seemed off, especially with the outfit she was wearing early in the film, which looked more like it belonged on an NFL player. The Beavers were very well voiced, very appropriately amusing.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Nicely done, though I didn’t care for it as much as the film version of Prisoner of Azbakan. I found I had forgotten the book somewhat, which made it more fun to see the film; it was one of the weaker books in the series, I felt at the time. At first I didn’t care much for Fiennes’ Voldemort, but I realized that was just the short bit immediately after his resurrection–after that he became much more suavely and interestingly menacing. Michael Gambon needs to dial down his Dumbledore somehow: the only time he really works as the character is when he’s speaking to the assembled Hogwarts’ students. Mad-Eye Moody was very nicely acted and visualized.

A Feast for Crows. It was interesting to see Martin get some notice in the New York Times the other day. I’m still enjoying this series but the bloat is starting to become noticeable. I understand that adding viewpoint characters is meant to enrich the central theme that no one is good or evil, and that adding “cul-de-sac” storylines is meant to deceive us about where the story is going. That’s been one of the great virtues of the books so far: without cheating or breaking the coherence of the narrative, Martin has frequently pulled off feats of misdirection and surprise. Nevertheless, some of the narrative chaff he’s throwing up now to continue that effort is starting to become wearisome. It may be that some of it will pay off in surprising ways later on, I suppose. Equally, some of the characters that I’m interested in who are supposed to be in this volume (Tyrion, my favorite, has been pushed off to the parallel Dance With Dragons) felt to me as if they got short shrift, particularly Arya. The big thing that worries me, though, and makes me feel as if Jordanesque bloat is creeping in here, is that not nearly as much actually happens in this book, by comparison with the other entries in the series. It still has a lot more plot movement than most other gigantic series of its kind, but there is a bit of a sense of interlude in Feast, and I don’t think that’s a healthy thing.

Avatar. The season finale for this series was just amazing. Here’s a show where I think there’s some clear thinking ahead about the narrative arc, that has a finite vision of the story it intends to tell. My daughter and I feel pretty sure that Prince Zuko will end up being Aang’s tutor in firebending, or perhaps Zuko’s uncle (though I’m guessing he may have a tragic end ahead of him somewhere, perhaps to catalyze Zuko’s realization about what his father and his nation have become). This is now one of the absolute best animated series ever, in my view: by turns funny, sad, wise, and full of potent invocations of the full tapestry of human experience, and yet wholly appropriate for even very young children.

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4 Responses to Pop Culture Roundup

  1. I thought Goblet of Fire was shaping up to be the best of the films so far; for the first 90 minutes, maybe even two hours, I felt the adaptive choices being made by the filmmakers were smart and even insightful. I loved the first two tasks, thought the Yule Ball was brilliantly acted and shot, and generally was enjoying myself immensely. Then came the final confrontation with Voldemort, the return of the Death-Eaters, and the reveal of Mad-Eye Moody’s secret, and everything fell apart. Seriously, I just felt one scene after another was poorly conceived and poorly played. Gambon’s Dumbledore put to no good use whatsoever in what really should have been his finest moment, and of course we lost Snape’s significance in those events entirely. What a let down.

    Still, I liked it better than the first two (Azkaban, I agree, remains the best so far.) Plus, the film sent me back to the book, which sent me forward through the next two volumes in a flurry of Potter geekery. The result was a long list of completely, indefensibly fan-boyish predictions for the final volume, which I am nonetheless proud of. I think I’ll put it up on my blog and see what happens.

  2. emschwar says:

    I think the Narnia movie intentionally downplayed some of the elements that made it as good a book at it was, and emphasized (and outright invented) some pieces that not only are not based in Lewis’ original, but actively detract from it. Specifically, I’m thinking of the watering-down of Peter’s leadership abilities (presumably in the interest of ‘realism’, and if there is a set of stories less in need of realism than the Narnia ones, I’d like to see it). I do think they did a wonderful job with Edumund in the film; he came across as a real human reacting to the absence of his father and the teasing of his siblings, not an insufferable prig with a barely-convincing redemption scene.

    As for Avatar– I think it’s the best American-produced animated show on TV right now. It does a wonderful job of playing to kids while still leaving adults something to watch for. Unlike most of what’s been coming out of Disney lately, it seems the show’s producers and writers have understood the idea that you don’t have to talk down to kids, or be “hip” to get them interested.

    I still think Fullmetal Alchemist is a better show, though– forget animated vs. live action, I think FMA, as it is sometimes acronymized, is the best show on American TV right now, period. It invites comparison to Faust and Macbeth in both its depth of character and plot, and shows off with astonishing subtlety some of the best examples of aging I’ve ever seen animated, as we watch the protagonists age from the age of about 8 to 16 over the course of the series (albeit mostly in flashbacks). In addition, the creators seem to have taken a page from Lois Bujold’s description of how she plots Miles Vorkosigan stories: “What’s the worst possible thing I can do to these people?”, which results in some honestly gut-wrenching storylines that never veer over the line into melodrama, though I have no earthly idea how they manage that.

    If you have Cartoon Network, I think they’re getting ready to rerun the series from scratch soon, so get your TiVO cracking, starting with “Those Who Challenge the Sun”. I think you will be nothing short of astonished.

  3. Endie says:

    It’s interesting what you say about the appropriateness of the voice work for Mr & Mrs Beaver.

    Coming from Britain, Mr Beaver was instantly recognisable as Ray Winstone: a fine actor, but strongly associated with roles as the thug or the alcoholic (eg drunken abusive husband in Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, or the murderous Will Scarlet in ITV’s Robin of Sherwood).

    I actually liked the effect this had: he carried that underlying tone of threat into what could have been a cutesy role (“Enjoying the scenery are we, boy?” to Edmund). I just couldn’t help worrying that Mrs Beaver would spill the tea and appear in the next scene with a black eye, as in so many Winstone films. I wish that Aslan had been so “not tame” as Mr Beaver…

  4. dnexon says:

    I haven’t watched Avatar, but let me echo the comments about Full Metal Alchemist. Clearly the best anime I’ve watched in a long time. My only caveat is this: don’t watch it on Cartoon Network… rent it and watch it in Japanese with English subtitles.

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