Anime Corner: Elegant Yokai Apartment Life Review

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I’m not sure Elegant is the right word.

What’s the Story?

Inaba is just about to start high school and decides it’s finally time to get out of his uncle’s house and move into a place of his own. Unfortunately the dorms he’s made arrangements to stay in suddenly burns down. Unwilling to go back to his uncle’s, Inaba searches for a place to live, but can’t afford anywhere, that is until a young boy points him towards an apartment building. The apartment appears ideal, true the building is quite old and a bit strange, but the rent is cheap and it’s not too far from the school. Of course there is a catch. The majority of the other residents are…well…monsters. Ghosts and other spirits straight out of folklore, but despite Inaba’s initial concern the spirits turn out to be really friendly and welcoming. At last Inaba feels at home and with the wealth of experience around him he might just be able to navigate high school and even adolescence.

The Review

It’s hard to know where to start with this series. Thinking back over the past twenty-six episodes it hasn’t done anything all that terrible, but at the same time nothing really stands out either. This series feels pretty middle of the road, though I suppose that could also be down to my own expectations. It’s not like I had any great idea of what I was going to get with this series (I tend to jump into shows blind and see what happens), but the anime led me to think it was one thing and then it wasn’t. To me it feels like this series couldn’t make up its mind. It starts off as a gentle, slice of life story about a guy who’s recently lost his parents and is trying to come to terms with that. The ghosts are there to help him open up and grow as a person. The thing is, that storyline ends about a quarter of the way through the series.

After that the series just tends to meander around the place, having Inaba interact with various strange spirits and events while also dealing with everyday life. As a slice of life it sort of works, it’s nice and calming and Inaba does deal with some interesting issues, most of which are themed around growing up without recycling the usual pat life lessons most shows tend to trot out. No, instead we’ve got Inaba learning that people have more sides to them than they show, sometimes kindness can be more harmful than anything else and other such lessons that make him a better person.

I do get the feeling that this series wanted to be more than a slice of life though, or maybe that was my expectations leading me down a different path again. See at one point in the series Inaba gets a magic book that lets him summon various spirits. At this point, as well as with Inaba’s training to better use magic, it had me thinking the series was going to become some sort of action fantasy. It doesn’t help that the series keeps setting up scenarios like this plot thread where there’s a teacher who is clearing having issues and then he gets up getting possessed by this malicious spirit. Perfect, so Inaba uses his magic to fight and exorcise the guy right? Wrong. Inaba doesn’t really do much, he uses magic a little, but most of the spirits at his disposal are really useless and it takes another character to save the teacher.

The series has an odd relationship with threat and resolution that I’m not really sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I kind of like that Inaba can’t solve every problem. It’s a very mature approach and goes to show that not every problem has an easy, if any, resolution. On the other hand it does beg the question, what exactly is the point of Inaba outside of being our viewpoint character? It also means that some plot threads just feel completely unsatisfactory in how they end, which again is true to life. There’s a plot thread that runs through the later half of the series that keeps getting built up and up and up, only for another character to set in and take it off Inaba’s hands and I still don’t feel like that’s the right answer. The girl still has issues and hasn’t dealt with them properly. Damn this series frustrates me sometimes.

One of the other problems this series has it that it is so slow. Despite Inaba’s continual growth, it never really feels like much has happened. It isn’t until you reach the last episode and we get a look back at the very beginning that you realise just how much Inaba has changed, despite the fact the that he’s done nothing but eat with the ghosts and stand in paddling pools. I think it comes to down to the lack of any real conflict or threat to the series. Despite things that it builds up and even times when there’s a momentary problem, it never lasts or feels like it’s going to have any great affect on the apartment. Life at the apartment carries on no matter what, which I guess could be one of its messages.

The Verdict

In the end Elegant Yokai Apartment Life is an okay series, but doesn’t do much to stand out. It does talk about some interesting subjects and handles them in a mature and almost true to life way, but unfortunately that means many of the challenges and conflicts our characters face lack a satisfactory conclusion. The series is also slow and lacks any hard-hitting comedy or action to really keep your interest. If you’re after something to just have playing in the background, this is a gentle and very calm series, so if that’s what you’re after maybe give this a try.

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Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.  

Anime Corner: WorldEnd: What do you do at the end of the world? Are you busy? Will you save us? Review

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Okay, Light Novel adaptations, we need to have a word about the word economy in your titles.

What’s the Story?

The world ended many centuries ago, the human race wiped by mysterious beasts that came out of nowhere. The beasts survive still, roaming the surface of the planet, but life goes on, various anthropomorphic species having escaped and evolved on several floating islands. They’re not entirely safe though as some of the beasts are able to make it up to the islands. The only weapons against the beasts are young girls, who are able to wield ancient swords once used by humans. Willem has just been made the caretaker of these girls. He’s the last surviving human and in the end the girls may take care of him as he much as he takes care of them.

The Review

This isn’t the series I was expecting. I mean it’s a light novel adaptation and one that’s supposed to be set around girls fighting monsters with magical swords (Gee. Haven’t seen that before), so the image I had in my head was one of lots of action and probably way too much fan service. It’s a fantasy series though, so I gave it a chance and I’m so glad I did. This series is much more interested in its characters and mythology than the fights and monsters. It plays out a bit like a slice of life mixed with a dark and tragic fantasy. This is a series about saving people and you don’t always need a magic sword for that.

We’ll start with the characters, first up is Willem. He’s a decent guy with a big heart and quick to help, though a lot of that masks a deep vein of depression, which is understandable. He’s the last human alive, everyone that he knew and loved is dead and gone and while we only get fleeting flashbacks to those people, you still feel the weight that Willem is carrying around. He’s not your typical main character and very easy to invest in emotionally, you want this guy to find some happiness and he may just do that. The Leprechauns, the girls with the magic swords, become a surrogate family for him, one that he tries to protect, just not as much as he would like.

See Willem was once a warrior and though he does have a few superpowers stored up he can’t use them without risking his already fragile life. Now while a lesser anime would have Willem save his power for some out of nowhere save at the crucial point to rescue the girls, WorldEnd is much better than that. No, we instead get to explore Willem’s frustration as he finds the boot is on the other foot, with him having to stay at home and worry while somebody else goes off to fight. That’s what this series does best, come at a familiar set up from a new, and far more emotional angle.

On the other side of the coin our female lead is Chtholly, and while she’s a badass fighter (though as I said the fights are never really the focus, they’re more background noise to the character drama) she’s more portrayed as an innocent and naïve young woman whose hoping for a little bit of happiness before she meets her inevitable end. (Have I mentioned there’s an air of depression about this series, just saying, take it as a warning. Happy Endings not guaranteed). Now while the whole “I must make myself good wife materiel for Williem” section of the plot does make me shake my head profusely, I kind of give it a pass because I like so much of the rest of the series, and Willem and Chtholly make a cute couple. She also has a bunch of other things to deal with, such as strange visions filled with nonsense rhythms and a red haired little girl, as well as losing her memory bit by bit. The series doesn’t shy away from exploring the emotions of these situates either, giving Chtholly plenty of opportunities to work through her feelings and probably one of my favourite scenes is a certain moonlit conversation with one of the other girls.

Speaking of the other girls, though a lot of them tend to fall into archetypes and common tropes, they never stop feeling like proper characters. The kids act like kids and the other girls all get their moments to shine, either in a fight or an emotional scene. Nephren, for me, definitely wins the award for most Badass Female this season. Throughout the series she’s been fairly cute and funny, always on the lookout for Willem and Chtholly, but for me her biggest moment is in the last couple of episodes. The relentless way she takes on wave after wave of never-ending enemies, pushing herself well beyond her limits, it’s the kind of stuff epic poems should be written about. I know this series isn’t about the action, but the final episode certainly gives us a host of epics moments accompanied by some gorgeous animation and the ever-beautiful soundtrack comes in in full force. This series is worth watching for the final episode alone (even if it is frustratingly open-ended).

Another strength this series has is its mythology. There’s clearly a great deal of work that has gone into the history and lots of little details that give you a better idea of the wider world out there. The series is pretty good with its mysteries too, even if at sometimes it can get distracted by its slice of life hijinks, but for the most part it does a good job of moving forward. It gives you hint after hint, slowly peeling back the veil to reveal what actually happened to the humans in the past and how that relates to the situation in the present. I won’t spoil it as that would take some of the fun out of it, but it has some interesting ideas on old concepts, which as I said, is what this anime is very good at.

The Verdict

WorldEnd (Not writing out the full title again) is a surprising little gem, less concerned with fights and more interested in its characters and mythology (and not a trace of fanservice baring a couple of scenes!). The series is a heartfelt and often heart-breaking story, filled with epic moments both emotional, and towards the end, action-packed. I can’t promise a happy ending for all involved and while it’s not perfect, it is a good story. So go watch it, I’ll get the tissues.

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Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.  

Anime Corner: Magical Girl Raising Project Review

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Blood and guts, ‘cause that’s what we want from our magical girl shows.

What’s the Story?

Magical Girl Raising Project is a popular game that everyone seems to be playing, though there’s a rumour floating about on the Internet that some of the players actually get the chance to become real magical girls. Middle schooler Koyuki is one of these lucky girls and as someone who has been a fan of magical girls since she was little, this is a dream come true. At least, it is at first, but then Fav, the administrator in charge of the game, decides they need to cut the magical girl population in half. Let the bloodbath begin!

The Review

Urgh. That’s it, that’s the review of the series. Urgh. I can’t think of a better way to sum my feelings towards this show, I mean it started out really good, okay that’s a lie, it started out decent and then quickly buried itself and just kept digging (roughly about the time that they started getting killed off). Maybe this is my fault, maybe I expected too much. I admit that I’ve been searching for another darker-toned magical girl series ever since Madoka Magica (I need my fix dammit it!). I mean I don’t expect to find a series to match the near masterpiece of Madoka, but I’ve had a void in my life ever since I watched that show and I haven’t found anything to fill it since. I’d hoped Magical Girl Raising Project could be the show I needed, but in the end I’m just sat here feeling dejected and little bit annoyed.

I think this series’ main failing is that it just doesn’t get how to do darkness. I mean there are times when violent deaths and a bit of gore can work in a story, maybe you want to shake up the story or shock your audience, personally I prefer it if that kind of thing is left to a minimum as that means it has a bigger impact and doesn’t lose quite so much meaning. I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t a market for stories about bloody death matches, I’ve enjoyed a few myself, but those series don’t just rely on violent murder after violent murder to draw me in. There are interesting characters, an enthralling plot and an examination of the dark aspects of human nature, or at least one of those things. This series though, it’s just death and blood. Each episode is pretty much there to set up the murder of one or more of the girls and an interesting series that does not make.

It would maybe help if I cared at all about any of these girls, but the series never really gives you much of a chance to. For one I think there’s just too many characters, there’s sixteen girls and twelve episodes, that means we have to lose more than one girl an episode, how do to you expect to give the audience enough time to care when they haven’t even a full twenty five minutes to get to know them? A lot of the time the closest we get to knowing the characters is the flashback sequences they normally parade in front of you right before that character gets the axe. Don’t get me wrong, some of these back stories are harrowing and I feel sympathy for what these girls have been through, but there’s no connection and they’re gone before there was even a point to care for them. We hardly ever get to see the girls in their civilian identities, so we never really get to see them as themselves, only the magical girls they’ve imagined for themselves.

This really ticks me off when we have some really interesting characters I was just dying to have explored. I mean there was La Pucelle, the only guy to become a magical girl, he was just begging to be explored. Has he ever wanted to be a girl? We know he’s a massive magical girl fan, but when he fantasised about being one was he a magical boy or a magical girl, that is some meaty character exploration right there, use it! Then we have Swim Swim the psycho serial murderer who happens to be a little girl, I really want to know what her deal is, I think it’s fairly obvious that something is wrong with her. She’s so restrained and emotionless all of the time, following Ruler’s rules like they’re some kind of gospel. Has she always thought like that? Did something happen to her? You’re fond of flashbacks anime; show us!

And do not get me started on Snow White! What the hell is the point of her character? She does nothing throughout the whole of the series, she is entirely pointless and she’s the main character! I suppose I have to give a couple of points for not going the route I was expecting, I was predicting she was either going to go crazy and kill everyone or she’d be the true magical girl she always wanted to be and find a way to end this bloodbath. None of that happened. Everyone else just died while she sat around and moped. I couldn’t quite figure out how she could do anything, I mean her power is to hear people in trouble and that’s it, but the one thing I’ll give this series is that in its latter half it had some pretty interesting battles with bizarre powers, like a girl who can swim through solid objects and another that can make holes just by touching something (that was a particularly nasty death). So how was Snow White going to fight with her power? Answer? She doesn’t! I had to laugh with the last episode, with Snow White training and learning how to fight, bearing in mind at this point that the actual fighting is over and so is the damned series! Urgh.

Lastly, another big failing for the series is just how it’s plotted out. A lot of the time it does just feels as if the whole point of this series was to kill a bunch of girls. I mean a lot of the explaining for stuff that I would regard as a major reveal is just delivered in the most boring and inept way. Want the girls to learn that they actually die if they stop being a magical girl? Have Fav just tell them. Want an explanation as to why this game became a bloodbath? Have Fav just sit down and explain it, again! I get the feeling that they want Fav to be a Kyubey-like bad guy, they wanted him to look cute but be this manipulative demonspawn that you just love to hate (and fantasise about beating with a shovel, god I hate Kyubey), but he’s just boring and lazy, only there as a construct to spout off exposition and make comments in bad taste.

The Verdict

In the end, if you’re into watching magical girls being maimed, murdered and probably something else being with m (I’m so annoyed with this series I don’t even want to waste the effort looking for the right words), then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this. For me though, it was terribly written, there were too many characters and the few goods ones didn’t get anywhere near the development they deserved. The one thing I will give this series is that in the later half is does have some interesting battles and use of powers, if only they could have ended up in a better series.

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Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday. 

Anime Corner: 91 Days Review

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Everybody’s dead Avilio. Everybody’s dead.

What’s the Story?

Avilio’s happy life was shattered when a mafia feud cost him the lives of his parents and younger brother. Seven years later he receives a mysterious letter giving him the names of those responsible for the slaughter. Avilio returns to the town of Lawless during prohibition to exact his revenge and he starts by convincing his childhood friend to sell his homemade alcohol to the mafia and befriending the Don’s son. It will only take 91 days for Avilio to complete his revenge, but vengeance can be a bloody business so the only real question is, will anyone be left alive by the end of it?

The Review

I haven’t seen that many gangster animes and if you’re a fan of the genre then I highly recommend this one. There are plenty of stories about gangsters blowing holes in one another and people seeking bloody vengeance out there and I don’t think this series brings anything particularly new to the table, but its told with such confidence and style that it is still definitely worth your time. I have to admit I sometimes have a weird back and forth with gangster stories, especially gangster stories set around prohibition, they are inherently bloody and violent (and this series is no different, the bounty count has to be knocking on three digits by the end). It’s not something that I particularly need to see. I can put up with it as long as it doesn’t go too gory or be gory for gore’s sake. Yet at the same the ones set in prohibition times are by historical necessity set around the 1920s, which stylistically is one of my favourite periods. I love the architecture and dress sense of that era (I partly blame Batman the animated series for this by influencing me at such a young age), so for me it’s great just to sit back and soak in the surroundings.

It’s also a great help that this anime is so gorgeously animated. Colour wise it sticks to a lot of browns and darker shades giving this whole series a very shady feel that perfectly suits the seedy world this show is putting on display. What really works is how the animation captures motion, it’s all the little details, the hesitation as a finger inches closer to the trigger or the way a throat moves as it gulps down some Lawless Heaven. I want to marry this animation sometimes. I also have to give credit to the directors, there are some really beautiful and well constructed shots throughout this anime and its always interesting to watch whether its two character going on a buddy-buddy road trip or an all guns blazing shootout in the streets.

The story as well is also really well written and just because it’s using the standard elements, it doesn’t mean it’s predictable. There are some great twists and deaths along the way that I really didn’t see coming and even when I did they still played out in spectacular fashion. I lot of the tension comes from just having Avilio and Nero sat in the same room together, you know at some point this whole revenge scheme is going to lead up to Avilio trying to kill Nero and you’re just waiting for the gun to go off. Avilio is a really smart guy though, sometimes a little too smart, always one step ahead of everyone else and manipulating all those around him into doing exactly what he wants. There are only a couple of times when he actually trips up and those are when the series is at its most tense because if Mr. Calm and Collected is in trouble then I really have no idea what’s going to happen next.

I suppose the most tragic part of this whole series is that, if it weren’t for the twisted joke fate was playing on all of the characters, I could see Avilio and Nero being really good friends. They have a great deal of chemistry and you believe the friendship that develops between them, if it weren’t for the fact that Nero was apart of the group of men that killed Avilio’s family, or Avilio’s blind obsession with revenge, then these two could go far together. It’s not even worth it in the end, Avilio’s revenge doesn’t bring him any kind of piece of mind or a reason to live, all the death and destruction he brings about and it accomplishes nothing except said death and destruction, in fact Avilio has considerably less after his revenge than before he started it.

You care for all of these characters even though most of them are murdering psychopaths; they feel like ordinary people, people you could laugh or cry with. You get what drives most of them, even if you can tell that it’s not going to end well for them and it is sad to see the majority of them go. Spoiler alert, but I was really upset when Fango went, I mean he really had to go, the man was two sacks of crazy inside a suitcase full of crazy and had it coming to him, but he was just so much fun to watch. Maybe some people would think he’s a little too over the top with his lunacy, but every scene with him in it was a joy because you just never knew what he was going to do.

The Verdict

91 days is stylish, smart and beautiful. As a story of the mafia and revenge, it doesn’t really bring anything startlingly new to the table, but the characters are all relatable and interesting in their own ways and the story itself is so well written and enjoyable that that doesn’t really matter in the end. I recommend this to everyone, not just fans of gangster shows, it’s a great series, just be prepared for a high body count and a tragic end.

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Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday. 

 

Anime Corner: Orange Review

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Post via black holes. Well, that’s a new one.

What’s the Story?

One day high school student Naho gets a very strange letter. It claims to be from herself ten years in the future and lists all of the events that are going to happen over the next year. They tell her that she will fall in love with a new transfer student called Kakeru and that he will die come the winter. At first Naho doesn’t believe it, until the events in the letter start to come true. Can Naho change the future, erase her regrets and save Kakeru?

The Review

Don’t let the time-travelling letter fool you the fantasy element of this series is really just an excuse for the story to take place (I’m not calling it a science-fiction element because again, postal service by black holes, I prefer my science soft but that is non-corporeal right there). Instead at first glance this is a story about a teenage romance with a little twist and a lot of heartache. The story is a very slow burn, it takes a realistic approach to dialogue and emotions, a lot of the time it’s just characters chatting away about nothing really as normal people tend to do. This can sometimes mean that it takes a little while to get going, especially when our two romantic leads are so awkward and nervous about admitting their feelings for one another, sometimes you just want to smack their heads together and tell him to get on with it.

I know I said the whole letter thing was an excuse, but it does help the story a great deal. It adds a level of tension to those earlier scenes were things are taking there time to get going, because you know this is all going to go wrong at some point down the line. You need it in those earlier episodes until you’ve built up a bond with all of the characters. It also adds to the frustration as you know unless Naho pulls her finger out there’s trouble ahead, but she’s so meek and doubting of herself that she can’t do anything. It takes a letter from the future and her friends to get her to take a step, even if it’s only an agonisingly small one.

This series isn’t just about a couple of kids getting together though; it does tackle some fairly heavy issues such as depression and suicide. There are several scenes with Kakeru that are tough to watch, a lot of them revolving around how Kakeru blames himself for his mother’s death and beats himself up over the fact that his last words to her weren’t the nicest things, they weren’t terrible, but he regrets them. So much of this series is about regret, mostly regret of actions not taken or apologises ungiven, every character is carrying a regret around with them and these letters are their future selves way of trying to erase them. Kakeru’s regrets are the deepest though; driving him to hate himself and even begin to believe that he’s life isn’t worth living. You just want to see the guy be happy and forgive himself, but he keeps getting pulled back into that dark place no matter what his friends do, now I’ve never had suicidal thoughts (morbid certainly, but not suicidal) but to me that is what I imagine it’s like for people going through stuff like that.

Orange knows where to hit you where it counts, in the feels. It’s frustrating, it’s agonising and quite often tear-inducing and at other times so heart-warming you’re likely to melt. You feel for Kakeru and you’re constantly cheering on the others to save him and screaming whenever something gets in the way, especially when it’s the characters themselves tripping themselves up. Seriously, Naho, girl, I will shake you until you find your courage and tell Kakeru how you feel (and it is such a relief when she finally does).

Kakeru isn’t the only guy I feel sorry for though, my heart goes out to Suwa too. He is in love with Naho just as much as Kakeru and in the alternate future ten years from now the guy is even married to her and they have a kid, but by trying to save Kakeru he’s preventing that from ever happening. Sure the way time travel works in this show is that the present we are watching is creating an offshoot reality to the one that sent the letters, so when you think about both are running concurrently, which means there’s one where Naho is married to Suwa and one where she’s with Kakeru both existing at the same time. It’s a bit of a cheat, but still Suwa is willing to let go of the girl he loves and watch her potentially married someone else, just to get rid of his own regret. It also kind of speaks to just how affected these people have been by Kakeru’s death, I mean ten years on and all of them are still so haunted by it that they’re willing to risk erasing their timeline (because they’re not sure how time travel works). Now that’s friendship, also a deep-rooted obsession, but hey no one’s perfect.

The only area where this anime really trips up is in the animation and that’s only ever so slightly. It’s not that the animation is bad, it does its job perfectly fine, I believe in the characters and the setting, but there are no real moments where it pulls out all the stops to awe me. It’s a very quiet and slow anime and the animation reflects that, though there are a few moments that feel a little cheap, like the shots of crowds and the classroom to save on anything really detailed while people are just talking. Or the weird framing of the scene where Kakeru kisses Naho on the cheek (I had to watch that a couple of times to work out what even happened). I’m not the biggest fan of the art style either, again not bad, but there’s just something about the way the faces are drawn, especially the eyes and mouths that just feels off to me.

The Verdict

In the end Orange is a really emotional story, it’s not about love or time-travelling letters, but instead it’s about regrets and being saved from them. The characters all feel genuine and likeable, even if sometimes they can be really frustrating. But it’s only that way because this anime makes you care about them and their goals. This can be really tragic at times and tackle some heavy themes, but in the end it’s a truly unbreakable friendship that pulls everyone through. Get your handkerchiefs ready if you’re going to watch this one.

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Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday. 

Introducing Scooby-Doocember!

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I love Scooby-Doo. I can’t not love it, the franchise is too ingrained in my childhood, I can still remember sitting on the carpet watching reruns of the original series on Cartoon Network (and for someone with as bad a memory as mine, that’s a minor miracle). Yeah I know my memory is caked in nostalgia, but it was a great series and I will have a reasonable discussion with anyone who thinks otherwise. Yes it was formulaic and so cheap that a shoestring budget would have been an improvement, but despite that it had a creepy atmosphere, some great designs and memorable characters. I think the fact that Scooby-Doo is still going today with dozens of different interpretations and series under its belt (some good, some not so much), is just a testament to how great the franchise is and it has more than earned its continued place in popular culture.

Over the past few months I’ve been on a nostalgia binge with the franchise, going through some of my old favourites and finally getting around to trying out some of the more modern interpretations and since last year I treated December as my theme month to tackle the DC Universe, this December I’m giving it over to Scooby-Doo.

Starting next week, be prepared for some genuine horror and the best animation the franchise has ever seen with my favourite film, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island! This time the monsters are real!

Then I’m trying out something new with another film, Scooby-Doo! Music of the Vampire, which is a Scooby-Doo musical. Yes, they went there. Is it any good? Well, I suppose we’ll find out.

Third we’re taking a look at what happens when Scooby-Doo gets an overarching plot and actual character development! Yes, blasphemy I know, but we’ll see if it works in Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated!

And finally, we’re going back to the beginning with my Top 5 episodes of the original classic, Scooby-Doo Where Are You!

Hope you enjoy it; I know I will. Now where did I put those Scooby Snacks?

Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.  

The Infallible Fish Reviews: Kung Fu Panda

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Skadoosh!

Wow. Kung Fu Panda, being really relevant with this one, how old is this film now? About 8 years old? Yeah I’m kind of indulging myself with this review (which isn’t really any different from every other review I put up on this blog, the whole thing is here because I have a need to splurge my thoughts and feelings and I lack someone to splurge them at).

Anyway, my relationship with Kung Fu Panda is a little weird and really the reason I want to talk about it today is because I want to discuss how an opinion of a film can change over time and how that can make a film better, or worse, than the version you carry around in your head. When I first saw Kung Fu Panda in the cinema, I liked it, it didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed the action and the visuals. Then a few years went by and I started noticing some online critics saying how good the film was (Nostalgia Critic and Unshaved Mouse to name two), and my reaction was, ‘the film with Jack Black as a panda? Really?’

Somewhere along the line my opinion of Kung Fu Panda shifted a little, I can only really put it down to my memory of the film fading a little. I could vaguely recall some of the cool action scenes and that great soundtrack, but then there was Jack Black performance and the jokes that were smile-inducing but nothing much more, the same going for the story. I did watch Kung Fu Panda 2 and love it, mostly because it amped up all the good stuff I enjoyed in the original, the action, the visuals and the Eastern philosophy, as well as expanding upon the characters.

Finally though, I got round to rewatching the original and I think I like it more than when I first saw it, which really weirds me out. There’s so much stuff that I’d forgotten, the film still has issues, but it’s a lot better than what the copy I’ve been carrying around inside my old noggin.

I’m pretty sure there’s no one left out there at the moment who needs convincing to see the film or who can’t guess at the story, but I’ll go over it anyway just in case. What’s the story? Po is a massive kung fu fan (both figuratively and literally), he loves the Furious Five, some of the best martial artists in all of China and daydreams of being an awesome kung fu master and joining their ranks. Unfortunately Po is an overweight panda running a noodle shop with this dad and has about as much chance of mastering kung fu as he does climbing a set of stairs with any breath left at all. Destiny (or rather the Universe’s twisted sense of humour) is on his side though as Po is accidentally picked to become the Dragon Warrior, a legendary hero. The trouble is no one believes he can do it, the Furious Five hate him and his teacher is determined to train him so hard that he quits. When the most feared kung fu warrior breaks out of prison though, the training becomes serious and Po has to really become the Dragon Warrior before the Big Bad arrives.

You can pretty much work out exactly what’s going to happen from the off, Po is a bit naive and an idiot, but through perseverance and a few training montages he will learn his own worth and that is ok the way he is, and this loveable fool shall become the greatest of heroes. He shall have the obligatory moment of doubt scene, but shall also gradually earn the respect of his fellow kung fu students and defeat the Big Bad. It’s kind of generic, but that doesn’t really bother me anymore, it’s simple and that’s all this story needs. There are some nice little twists in there, the back story of Shifu, Tai Lung and Tigress is really great and surprisingly dramatic and emotional for a film called Kung Fu Panda. You feel Shifu’s pain and regret at what has happened to the student he thought of as a son, you feel Tai Lung’s rage at his rejection after being pushed so hard and you feel Tigress’ sorrow at never getting the love she wanted. You could have made a movie out of just these three and I’d have been happy.

I do like all of the characters in the film; they all feel genuine and likeable. Sometimes they can jerks, but you get why and you understand their point of view (always the mark of good characters). They’re also all really well performed, the actors do a great job of filling them with feelings and a sense of wholeness. That does bring me to Jack Black’s performance. It’s honestly a lot better than I remember, not that I ever thought it was bad, but whenever I heard Po speak I could see Jack Black stood in a recording booth. It stopped me from totally investing in the character and I don’t think it’s anything that Jack Black did. I just recognise his voice so easily and Po is very similar to that slacker stereotype that Mr. Black used to play a lot. Watching it back though there are a handful of moments where the emotions feel really genuine and I can forget that it’s Jack Black speaking into a mic and really believe in this panda.

Where Kung Fu Panda excels though is in the animation department. For one, the martial arts are fantastic in this films and lead to some exhilarating action sequences. This film is at its best when it’s moving, it’s fast, it’s powerful and it’s fluid. You can tell a lot of effort and time went into getting the moves just right and it is so worth it. Also there are just some jaw-dropping visuals, even eight years down the line, there’s a palpable sense of atmosphere to so many of these locations and it really knows how to use colours at their most effective.

In the end, I don’t think Kung Fu Panda is a perfect film, but it’s certainly higher in my estimations than it was before. The story may be simple and the jokes don’t make me laugh out loud, but the characters feel genuine and likeable and the fantastic action and visuals alone are worth the price of admission. I don’t know if there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen Kung Fu Panda yet, but check it out. I suppose this review is just my way of apologising, you’re more awesome than I thought panda.

Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday. 

 

The Infallible Fish Reviews: Aladdin and the King of Thieves

Blog Aladdin King of Thieves Review Title

Third time’s the charm.

There are certain patterns in cinema that are so well known that even the general public know of them, not just us geeks on the internet. Odd-numbered Star Trek films suck, current Adam Sandler films are best avoided and never, ever submit yourself to watching a Disney sequel (unless you enjoy torturing yourself). There are exceptions to these rules though, Star Trek Nemesis, Hotel Transylvania and today’s subject, Aladdin and the King of Thieves (and can I just point out that a rule isn’t really a rule if there’s exceptions to it).

The main problem that a lot of Disney sequels have is that they’re so unnecessary. The original Disney films often offer a complete story with no need for a continuation, unless Disney wants to finally take a look at what happens after the Happily Ever After. The sequels are there to sell a brand, to make money, they’re often cheap, inconsequential and poorly thought out. I’m not saying that the King of Thieves doesn’t have elements of that in it, but it feels like its trying. It’s trying to continue the story. It’s trying to find a new angle with these characters and progress them. It’s trying to have a point. That’s why I like this film, that and the return of Genie, plus a giant turtle with a city on its back.

So what’s the story? Aladdin and Jasmine are finally getting married (see, not all Disney princesses get married to a guy after 3 days. There’s a sequel and a whole TV series between this movie and the first one). Everyone’s excited and the Genie going into overload. Ok, let’s talk about Robin Williams. I love the guy, he was a huge part of my childhood and always brought so much fun to his performances, and his role as Genie in the original Aladdin was my introduction to him. It’s also fantastic that Disney managed to get him back for this film. Is the Genie a bit much in this film? Yeah, kinda. It’s as if he’s trying to break the world record for pop culture references in a single movie there’s that many crammed in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hilarious seeing just how many he can get through and there isn’t a moment of his screen time that isn’t fun, but I can understand if it’s just too much for some people.

Anyway, back to the plot. As per narrative convention the wedding doesn’t go according to plan. The Forty Thieves decide to crash the party, with the King of Thieves out to steal a sceptre that holds a mystical Oracle. Can I just say how much I love this film for expanding the mythos of the Aladdin universe? Yeah I know there was a TV series, but I never got to see that over here in the UK. We’ve got oracles, giant turtles and a magic hand that turns whatever it touches to gold. There’s some great concepts here and it adds to the magic and the wonder of the world. It’s effort people. Actual effort!

Back to the plot, again (sorry I keep getting sidetracked, probably because the plot is actually pretty straight forward), after fending off the Forty Thieves, the oracle I mentioned happens to let slip that the King of Thieves is Aladdin’s dad. I can only assume it does this for its jollies as the way the oracle is supposed to work is that you get to ask one question and you get an answer. Now no one outright asks the Oracle about Aladdin’s dad, and it clearly doesn’t count as a question because the Oracle let’s Aladdin ask a question later on. The only reason the Oracle has to give up this information is to get the plotting moving. Now Aladdin can finally get some answers about his past and just maybe turn his dad to the good side.

However much the Genie takes over scenes in this film, it does really belong to Aladdin. We have actual character progression and in a logical and natural way. Gone is the cocky little orphan who couldn’t admit the truth to the woman he loves, now he’s replaced by a capable and responsible young man who will always do what he feels is right. While at the beginning of the film he questions whether he has what it takes to start a family, after all he has no experience with such a thing, but by the end he’s proved that he’s going to be just fine.

The effort isn’t just in the story though. There are two aspects that are very important to a Disney film, the animation and the songs. Of course this is a direct-to-video film so the budget is tiny, but King of Thieves actually manages some pretty impressive bits of animation. Aladdin’s duel with Sa’luk is pretty brutal with some nice direction and use of colour. When Aladdin gets his arm cut, you feel it, of course this is Disney so there’s no blood and he’s fine a minute later. My favourite bit of animation has to be towards the end as Aladdin and his father approach the Hand of Midas. There’s a huge sweeping shot of the room that just gives you this sense of awe, and while the Hand itself turns out to be little more than a cool way for our villain to die, that scene makes sure there’s some wonder around this object.

As for the songs, there’s none that can replace the songs from the original Aladdin, but I don’t think a single one of them is really bad. They’re all fun and have this toe-tapping energy to them. You won’t be singing them, but you might catch yourself humming them once in a while. Also I love a villain song, so it’s great to have two in this film.

In the end, Aladdin and the King of Thieves is by no means a necessary watch, but it does feel like a worthwhile continuation of the original film, trying to explore a couple of different aspects and expand the world. Is it perfect? No. There are a few cheap moments in the animation, the story doesn’t really have any surprises to give and Jasmine is practically non-existent throughout most of the film, but there are good ideas, the songs are fun and there are times when the animation actually tries. This will never be a classic, but that doesn’t stop it being an enjoyable adventure.

Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday. 

The Infallible Fish Reviews: Iron Man Rise of Technovore

Blog Iron Man Review Title

The wind? Sounds more like hot air to me.

No matter how much Marvel has transformed the cinematic landscape with its superhero movies there will always be one area where they’re still behind, and that’s in the animation department. Whether it’s their stand alone films, or even their cartoon series, DC always manages to outclass them when it comes to animated products (and that’s not just me saying that because I’m a DC fanboy, ok maybe a little but not entirely). So how can Marvel possibly go toe to toe with the master animators at DC? Simple, they hire the anime pros at Madhouse to do it for them. Let’s see how they handle it.

On an animation front this is a gorgeous film, for the most part. The characters all look great and move well. The action is fast and fluid, sometimes a little too much. That flying scene at the beginning of the movie is a little hard to follow with the camera always zipping around the place trying to keep up with two dots. I also noticed that sometimes the 3d model they use for Iron Man while he’s flying looks a little stiff in a few shots. My only other complaint is that the contrast is turned up way too high throughout the majority of the film. It’s like everyone is stood under a spotlight and  when your main villain has an all white aesthetic it can make things a little hard to make out sometimes. Now these are only minor quibbles, but the main selling points of this film are the action and the animation so I’m going to notice this stuff unless you’ve got something else up your sleeve to distract me.

Let’s have a look at the actual story though. Now Iron Man is a great character, as proved by Robert Downey Jr and the Marvel movies, but he has spent a long chunk of his history wallowing around in the c-lister bin of the Marvel universe. There’s so much to explore with his character, Tony Stark is the epitome of a flawed hero, he’s arrogant, he’s reckless and quite often drunk, but he feels genuine guilt and remorse for his past and wants to help make the world a better place, even if sometimes his idea of better doesn’t mesh with everyone else’s. There’s a lot you can do with him, but most of his stories revolve around either taking on guys in business suits, taking on guys in mechanical suits, or people stealing his armoured suits. He doesn’t have a great rogue’s gallery either. Rise of Technovore tries something a little differently though, yes it boils down to a guy in a suit, but I like the angle that the suit is far more advanced than Tony’s own and the whole techno-organic idea has always been interesting to me. It’s just a shame the film never really gets to sink its teeth into the idea.

The story begins with Iron Man and War Machine racing one another over the Utah desert, which outside of the camera flying around like it’s on a sugar rush is a pretty neat intro to our heroes. We get a good idea of their personality and the bond between them. They’re in Utah as Tony is launching a new satellite named after his dad, the Howard, which has the ability to hack into any computer and monitor every person every second of the day (and there’s no way this can possibly go wrong). Then something goes wrong. A bunch of guys in mechanical armour and a strange person in white armour attack the launch. Iron Man and War Machine fight off the hired thugs, but the stranger proves to be a bit more of a challenge. He’s faster than Tony and can summon up these strange floating white balls that can infect metal or organic issue, then they can…well they do a lot of things, they can hack into computers, kill people somehow or just make things go boom. I get the idea of what the stuff is and can do, but the film doesn’t really go to any lengths to make it clear, which kind of diminishes the threat when you don’t know what it’s capable of.

Anyway, the stranger make command station go boom and War Machine along with it (but not really because we all know they don’t have the balls to kill of War Machine in a standalone movie like this). Tony swears to do some avenging (huh, good name for a team) and goes off in search of the bad guy. For some reason this means S.H.I.E.L.D. has to chase him. I get that Tony is the only lead they have to track down the bad guy, and I get that letting Iron Man fly off on a revenge-fuelled hunt isn’t a good idea, but why the hell are they sending Mandroids and agents after the guy? Hit him with an EMP, tied him down and talk to him, don’t authorise lethal bloody force! But then without that we couldn’t have half as many fight scenes, and while the fight scenes are well executed, this is the kind of time that could be spent better exploring the titular Technovore, or developing our villain or I don’t know…exploring the emotional ramifications of War Machine dying! At most we get about three scenes were we get to see the effect the loss of his best friend is affecting Tony, the rest of the time he’s just his usual wisecracking self.

Then we come to the villain, I won’t spoil who it is but he is incredibly underused. A lot of the time he just sits around prattling on about the wind trying to sound philosophical and coming across as a rambling madman, which I suppose he is, but it’s not interesting and it’s not threatening. He was so much cooler at the start where he just floated around and hardly said a word. Why did he have to open his mouth and have to start spouting nonsense? We hardly know anything about his motives or why he believes in what he does, he’s just does stuff, that’s it.

That brings me on to my final why for this film. Why the hell is the Punisher in it? Now the Punisher is probably one of my least favourite ‘superheroes’, but I’ll get into that another time. Why is he in this film? Iron Man and Punisher don’t actually exist in the same orbit, so seeing them together is a bit odd. It can’t be a marketing ploy as surely Iron Man is a better known name now than Punisher. He doesn’t even do that much in the plot. He basically shoots some people, is in the next scene purely just to go over exposition with Tony and then he helps Iron Man fight off Black Widow and Hawkeye, that’s it. Then he promptly rides off into the sunset. What. Was. The. Point!

In the end Iron Man: Rise of Technovore is a decent film. It looks good and has plenty of action to tide you over; unfortunately that action comes at the expense of the story. There are some cool ideas here that are begging for some proper exploration, but the film is more interested in blowing stuff up and throwing in random ‘heroes’ than making use of what it has.

Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday. 

The Infallible Fish Reviews: Wonder Woman (2009)

Blog Wonder Woman Review Title

All the world’s waiting for you, and the power you possess. In your satin tights, fighting for your rights, and the old Red, White and Blue. Wonder Woman! (Sorry, I had to get that out of my system.)

As you can probably guess the next movie in my DC Month extravaganza is Wonder Woman. People say that Superman is hard to write, and while that can be true, I think Wonder Woman is harder. It mostly comes down to her dual nature. On the one hand she’s an ambassador, she represents compassion, love and peace. On the other hand she’s a fierce Amazonian warrior who baths in the blood of her enemies. It’s kind of hard to reconcile those two halves.

Mostly the problem comes down to the origin idea. Diana is Amazonian. In her origin the Amazonians are represented as a peaceful utopian society. In Greek mythology they’re the bad guys who are a clear indicator of why women shouldn’t be allowed to think for themselves (The Greeks were many things, pioneers of science, mathematics, medicine, great philosophers and apparently a bunch of jackasses. How could a people thought of for their democracy get it so wrong?) Anyway, this is where the conflict with Wonder Woman’s character comes from, and it takes a great writer to find the balance to portray Diana properly. Luckily this film has some fantastic writers, so let’s see how they do. What’s the story?

We start at some point in the past where the Amazons are fighting the forces of the God of War, Ares. It’s a truly epic, and also brutal, opening. We get two decapitations in five minutes (well the kids aren’t going to be watching this), but the action is fantastic. We get to meet several Amazons who will be relevant throughout the plot, and although we never go too deep into their characters, we learn enough to get a handle on their personalities. We also get to meet the Queen of Badass, Hippolyta, who manages to subdue Ares. Unfortunately Zeus isn’t too keen on the idea of a third decapitation in the opening, so stops he her. Hippolyta is royally annoyed, she came here for bloody vengeance and now she can’t get any. Hera offers a consolation prize of immortality and a fancy invisible island where the Amazons can live in peace. Also Ares is stripped of his godly powers and given to the Amazons as a prisoner, and he doubles as a handy demonstration of the evils of men.

Eventually Hippolyta wants a child, so wanders off to the beach to mould a baby out of sand and let lightning strike it (as you do), thus Diana is born. We finally move to the present day where Diana has grown up into a skilled warrior, though longs to see the outside world (almost makes her sound like a Disney princess, that’s a joke, but at the rate that Disney is buying up franchises I’m not so sure…). Anyway, the outside world decides to send Diana a present, Nathan Fillion! Sorry, that’s Steve Trevor, a U.S. fighter pilot who crash lands on the island. Diana and Steve’s relationship gets off to a good start, when he hits on her and she beats him up.

Of course this island of women aren’t too happy to have a member of the opposite sex hanging around, he could give them cooties or something. You may have noticed my sarcasm there. I actually really like this version of the Amazons. They have a peaceful society, in all appearances its paradise, and yet it’s missing something important. The Amazon’s, and more specifically Hippolyta’s, hatred and fear of men is robbing them of opportunities and families (not everyone can make a baby out of clay and lightning). Hippolyta’s experiences with Ares are truly terrible and I can completely understand why that has coloured her view of the opposite sex, but she’s taking her opinion of a horrible man and applying it to the whole gender.

This is actually the stereotypical view of a feminist, a man-hating Amazonian, and yet it’s not feminism. Treating someone differently because of their gender is sexism and stupidity. People are people, whether their sex organs are inside or out. There’s nothing wrong with being a woman. There’s nothing wrong with being a man. It’s about regarding one another as equals and communicating more for the betterment of one another. That’s the message I take from this film, and Wonder Woman in general.

Back to the story, while the Amazons hold a contest to determine who should take Steve back home, Ares is freed from his prison (and look I know the guy’s mortal now and has limited powers, but really? You just stick him in a cave with a couple of guards? Arkham Asylum has better security than this).  Now Diana, having won the contest, not only has to get Steve home, but also has to track down Ares and stop him before he starts a war that will wipe out most of humanity.

I suppose this is a good as time as ever to talk about some of the other characters who I adore in this film. For starters there’s Steve who is played perfectly by Nathan Fillion. He has just enough likable charm that you can put up with Steve’s attempts to hit on Diana, and he has a brilliant delivery with every one of his jokes. In the beginning he’s exactly the kind of guy that Hippolyta thinks populates the world, yet through his time with Diana he grows up a little bit. I think his big moment comes when Diana has become disillusioned with the world and no longer believes it possible to bridge the gap between the Amazons and the rest of the world. It’s a tiny little moment, but you can see Steve realise just how much he’s unintentionally hurt Diana and he wants to make up for that.

The only other supporting characters of note are three of the Amazons. As I said earlier, we never truly go into detail about them, but in the brief time we spend with them we get to see them shine and they have their own little arcs too. Artemis goes from being a bloodthirsty warrior to actually sitting down an attempting to read a book. Alexa is a bookworm, yet gets to prove that the brain has a place on the battlefield, as well as having a triumphant moment leading a charge of Amazons. Persephone is actually a really interesting one. She’s the traitor who frees Ares. At first she’s depicted as a fool, tricked by Ares for his own ends, and while I doubt that Ares has any genuine feelings for Persephone, in the end she’s shown as a more tragic character illustrating what’s wrong with Themyscira.

All in all this is a terrific film. It’s funny, action-packed, well written and well thought out. The characters are great and the animation is amazing. This is one of the best films DC has put out, and if the live action Wonder Woman movie is even half as good as this, we’re in for a great movie.

Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.