Tag Archives: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Shark Tale

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


shark tale09] Shark Tale (1st October 2004)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $367,275,019

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 36%

Oy vey.

Ever since I started this little project, I was dreading the moment when I would have to do Shark Tale.  Its presence on the “To Watch” list hung over the entire venture like a dead rotting albatross, never letting me forget its existence even whilst I was really enjoying myself with DreamWorks Animation’s other, really very enjoyable films.  Shark Tale, you see, has a reputation.  Despite taking $367 million worldwide and being the 9th Highest Grossing Film of 2004 Worldwide, you will find nobody who is willing to admit to liking Shark Tale.  It is widely seen as one of the worst animated films of the decade, a distillation of everything that is wrong with animated movies and DreamWorks Animation, and would have faded into total obscurity if it weren’t for obsessive asshats like my good self dredging it back up every so often to ensure that nobody forgets it, lest they end up making the same mistakes and subjected a new generation to unspeakable horrors.

Yet, though I approached my task with wary and weary resignation, I entered with a good sense of curiosity overriding everything else.  If you’ve noticed a common thread with regards to this series by now, it’ll be that this endeavour is just an excuse for me to take an in-depth look at animated movies and spend multiple A4 pages explaining why they do or do-not work, why they were or were-not successful at the time, and to go on for hours about the history of animation, a subject I know much less about than you think I do.  And let’s not short-sell it, Shark Tale was a giant success at the box office with the public.  It was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (2004 was not a good year for the medium, granted, but this over The Spongebob Squarepants Movie?!).  Obviously it must have done something right.  I even had the DVD and watched the film a few times as a kid.  Seeing as I remembered nothing about it, I decided to go in with the hopes that it couldn’t be as bad as it had been made out to be, and that I was going to try and figure out why this movie became so successful yet faded into memory.

Below, you will find my reaction to Shark Tale whilst it was running and for a good half hour after it finished.

double facepalm

Shark Tale is one of the worst films that I have ever seen.  This is not an exaggeration, one made for comic effect and to flanderize my true thoughts on the movie.  Shark Tale is one of the worst films that I have ever seen in my entire life.  At the 22 minute mark, I genuinely paused the film with the intent of shutting it off and never returning to it.  I have only ever (metaphorically) walked out of a film once due to it being absolutely dreadful (read: no outside circumstances, like power cuts or needing to be elsewhere), said film being Disaster Movie, and Shark Tale came this close to joining that club.  I don’t even know how I’m going to touch on everything wrong with this movie within my usual allotted space.  This is a total failure on every single level and there are no redeeming qualities anywhere.  That sentence should probably give you a strong indicator as to why I was all set to just quit at barely the 1/4 mark.

But, I persevered, for I set out to watch every single DreamWorks Animation film and over-analyse them like a nit-picky internet jerk.  Plus, it would look really bad if I missed a week and just moved onto Madagascar without saying anything about this.  So, with the remainder of our allotted time together (because you are busy people with places to be and better things to be doing than watching a 19 year-old man complain about Shark Tale for an eternity), I will attempt to explain what is wrong with Shark Tale.  The result will likely end up covering just a fraction of the problems with this film.  Be grateful this isn’t a video or audio-based series, as the end result would probably be about 90 minutes long and have at least 40% of the runtime consist of me sputtering futilely like an enraged-yet-despairing Looney Tunes character.

Let’s start with something easily tangible that we can all notice together: the animation and, most specifically, the character designs.  The animation itself is mediocre to poor: there’s a lack of detail pretty much everywhere, the water doesn’t look or feel like water, colours are muddied instead of decently shaded, and movements are pretty dreadful.  Whenever character movements aren’t being too jerky, less the artistic decision to make it “pose-to-pose” (like in the TV series Clone High) and more “this character needs to be in this position from that position, but lunchtime is coming up and I can’t be arsed, so I’m only going to do, like, half of the frames the job needs,” they’re instead being way too smooth and lacking in weight; it never feels like anyone’s actually in liquid of any viscosity, let alone the sea.  It’s bad and, yes, it does come off even worse considering the fact that Finding Nemo came out 18 months earlier.

But the animation is not the main issue with the look of Shark Tale.  That would be reserved for the character designs.  Now, there is a reason why one does not try and accurately make animated characters look like the people voicing them.  Actually, make that two reasons.  The first is that you’re going to look very silly if you design a character to look like Brad Pitt and then Brad Pitt doesn’t show up to play him.  The second is that a more cartoony and stylised art design for the rest of the film and a really accurate facial likeness of a celebrity don’t mix, meaning that your character is going to look hideous, terrifying, and completely ill-fitting with the rest of the world.  Apply the knowledge that you’ve just learnt, then, to answering this question: why do you not try and design a cast of fish to have faces that resemble the people playing them.

Answer: because you get Jellyfish Christina Aguilera.

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This is more terrifying than anything that Annabelle will cook up

That’s the most extreme example, but the rest of the cast are honestly not much better.  Oscar’s face is noticeably off-looking from a good majority of angles, due to his eyes being too wide and his facial features trying to resemble Will Smith.  Lola’s lips are stuck in this weird halfway house between fish and human, like they desperately tried to capture the effect of Angelina Jolie wearing lipstick and failed miserably, and just end up distracting as a result.  Sykes, meanwhile, is basically the result of copying a photo of Martin Scorsese’s face without glasses, circa 1978, and pasting it onto a puffer-fish, with the unholy result being what you spend 90 minutes viewing.  And the way that their fins move like human arms and hands is just unnervingly creepy.  These are bad, ugly character designs; the kind that makes even the film’s nicest character, Lenny, look like a knock-off tie-in toy for the real character rather than anything loveable or even bearable to look at for 90 minutes.

I’m probably not going to get any better of a segway than that last paragraph, so let’s transition over to the voice acting.  Now, stunt casting in animated films was absolutely nothing new in 2004.  Hell, Shrek 2 heavily indulged in it about six months prior to Shark Tale, and let’s not forget the all-star cast lists of other DreamWorks films.  And whilst I will sit here and grumble irritatingly about how professional VAs never get any chances in big budget cinema-focussed films nowadays, I will cease my complaining if the cast are really good or fit their parts well.  Basically, as long as they were cast for reasons that amount to more than “they’re big now, right?” then I don’t have a problem.  You’ll notice that this is why I didn’t moan about the overabundance of big-names populating Shrek 2, they may have been given garbage material but they were all at least trying to make it work.

As you may have guessed by that entire preceding paragraph, I am building up to the earth-shattering revelation that almost none of Shark Tale’s cast are any good or even trying at all.  There are those in paycheque-collecting mode (Robert De Niro who almost reaches the depths he plumbed in The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle just 4 years earlier), those who are flatter than Flat Stanley (Angelina Jolie who, goddammit, is supposed to be playing a sexpot, for crying out loud), those who are trying but being directed poorly (Jack Black is the only one of the main cast who actually tries putting on a voice, but he can’t stick with it the whole way through), and then there is Martin Scorsese.  Before watching Shark Tale, I firmly believed that I could listen to Martin Scorsese talk about anything for hours.  The man is just so excitable and passionate about pretty much anything that he could probably read the phone book and hold my interest.

Then, about 11 minutes into Shark Tale, this happens.

Look, maybe there’s a way to make that exchange funny.  Scorsese did not know how.  That was my first indicator that my long-held belief with regards to Scorsese was going to be put to the ultimate test.  The man, quite simply, is out of his depth (he he, sea puns) and I realised that he would not be able to elevate garbage material.  That, incidentally, is the only clip of Shark Tale that I can find on YouTube with Sykes prominently featured in it, which is a pain for me trying to illustrate my point, but a blessing for you, the reader.  See, that means that you don’t have to see or hear Martin Scorsese attempting fist-bumps, gangster lingo, dreadful mafia movie references, or “that one dance move where you lick your finger, place it on your butt and hiss like steam is going off” and you get to go through life without having those images permanently seared into your subconscious because DEAR GOD WHY!?

So it probably won’t surprise you to find out that Shark Tale was written by white people, yet keeps attempting to work in references to hip-hop, gangster, and lower-class New York life.  It also probably won’t surprise you to find out that their every attempt to tap into those sub-cultures is embarrassingly cringeworthy and gives off the strong impression that their only experience of primarily black culture was The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.  Fitting seeing as Will Smith is playing the lead, but it leads to this continual feel of people trying to tap into sub-cultures that have become popular without actually understanding them.  Or, in fact, knowing anything about them at all beyond a ten-second Google search and an afternoon watching MTV Base.  It’s like if your Granddad tried to prove that he is “hip” and “down with the kids” by using those very phrases earnestly.

Plus, those references don’t gel with the gangster movie that Shark Tale also wants to be.  In fact, Shark Tale is a confused and aimless movie with no general point to it.  It keeps trying on all of these different hats, all these different plot threads, all these different thematic threads, but it never settles on one.  Not once does the film seem to know what it’s trying to be.  Is it a mafia story about a father who is passing on his empire to his sons?  Is it a rags-to-riches story about a lowly schmuck who has dreams bigger than his current standing in life?  Is it a cautionary tale about how lying will only make things worse for everyone or about not letting success go to your head?  Is it a film about grief?  Is it a film about social standing?  Is it a film that uses the thinnest of metaphors for homosexuality and coming out to your parents?

Truth is that Shark Tale is about every single one of these and none of them whatsoever, because it tries to do them all at once and schizophrenically hops between them from scene-to-scene doing absolutely none of them justice.  As a result of this indecisiveness, the film lacks a thematic core, a central reason as to why all of its events are happening.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the problem is not indecisiveness.  The entire vibe that Shark Tale gives off, more than any other, is a desire to earn a quick buck.  A light bulb moment from everyone involved higher-up at the company: the realisation that Shrek may be a winning formula and a desire to milk that “edgy kids’ animation” udder as hard and as fast as is humanly possible.  Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the film was greenlit after somebody walked up to a man in charge one day with a list of A-list actors and a note saying that rap culture was in right now, with everything else just being made up on the fly after the fact.  It would explain the total over-stuffed mess that we ended up getting.

It would also explain how we ended up with one of the most inadvertently unlikeable heroes I have ever met in an animated movie.  Seriously, Oscar is a giant jerk-ass.  He is selfish, manipulative, a compulsive liar, gambler and overall degenerate, lazy, uncaring of his friends, and only helpful when it serves his own personal interests.  Now, I get that this is supposed to be the point, he starts a jerk and then gets better when character development kicks in, but there are two stumbling blocks to this.  1) He begins too unlikeable.  There is a difference between “a jerk who is entertaining to watch” and “a jerk who I would like to see flambéed immediately” and he is most definitely in the latter category, despite Will Smith’s natural likeable charisma.  2) His big heroic act near the end, rescuing Angie and revealing his lie, is still being done out of selfish desires, a desire to pork Angie, so he’s actually learnt nothing.  His making amends with the sharks feels crowbarred in purely to try and make that complaint hold little weight, instead of anything natural.

That “pitch” that I mentioned two paragraphs back would probably also explain why the film’s “jokes” are so utterly non-existent or just-plain-terrible.  As a little mini-case study, let’s all watch the fake shark attack sequence together.

Notice how most of this sequence is not built on broad physical comedy, character work, or at least contrasting the fake performance with how it looks to the bystanders.  Notice instead how it primarily attempts to get its laughs from random pop culture references.  Yes, references.  Lenny singing a bastardisation of the Jaws theme to himself (which is not a call-back, despite the joke having already been used with a different character earlier in the movie, because it’s the same joke), the battle taking place in a very-thinly veiled version of New York, and then there’s that bit where Oscar just starts shouting phrases from classic movies.  None of them have any reason for being said in the context of the scene, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to their delivery or choice; the lone exception being “YOU HAD ME AT ‘HELLO’!” because, hey, Renée Zellweger starred in Jerry Maguire so ha.

The scene has no actual jokes.  Lenny eating Oscar could have been a funny sudden gag, but it’s dragged out too long, leads into an overly-tangential rant by Oscar, and the animation is too low-quality to truly sell it.  Otherwise, it’s just pop culture references and a performance that’s too absurd and too long to be funny.  When concocting a scene where two characters are putting on a fake display of some kind, you need it to be absurd enough that it’s funny for the viewer, but not dragged out too long as to make them start wondering why nobody in the film’s world has cottoned on.  There also need to be jokes.  Shark Tale’s is absurd, but it goes on for way too long and lacks in jokes, making one wonder how anyone could be buying this.  (For an example of how to do this kind of thing right, I point you towards this scene from Avatar: The Last Airbender.)  Instead of there being actual jokes, Lenny gets punched through a billboard for Jaws.  Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

And that kind of quote-unquote joke abounds everywhere throughout Shark Tale.  From its casting (hey, look, it’s Michael Imperioli who is here because he was in Goodfellas and The Sopranos), to its billboard parodies (more on those in a sec), to brick jokes that should be funny (a shrimp that Lenny spared earlier in the movie returns in the climax quite literally so that it can say “Say hello to my little friends!”), to pretty much any usage of music.  What do I mean by that?  When Oscar seems to have outsmarted the sharks, he immediately gets up on the table and sings Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, complete with doing the dance (which was the moment I realised why Oscar’s character design was the way it was).  When Lola is introduced (and I could write something like 20 paragraphs on this film’s usage and treatment of women, so be glad we’re near wrapping-up time), the soundtrack plays Gold Digger by Ludacris, to just ram that point home as hard as is humanly possible.  And then, there’s this.

Oy vey indeed, Robert De Niro.  It’s all just so goddamn lazy, completely devoid of skill or effort, and done with a near-total contempt for the audience the result ends up in front of.  Then, much like in Shrek 2, there are the jokes aimed only at children, because attempting double-coding properly like in the first Shrek was just too much work for everyone involved at DreamWorks Animation in 2004.  You know: fart jokes, inherently funny words being repeated endlessly for no reason, wacky comic relief that pops up with a joke any time that a scene gets in danger of being too serious (funny that the first Shrek lampooned this Disney trope and yet DreamWorks couldn’t stay away from it, isn’t it), more fart jokes, wacky comic relief based around racial stereotypes that everyone involved hopes that children are too young to realise are racist, something gross occurring, even more fart jokes, poorly-done physical humour, and sudden music cues because WACKY!  Wanna take a guess how this all turns out?

One last thing and then I will let you leave.  I get that Shark Tale is supposed to be set in an underwater equivalent to New York City.  I get that that means that there will be a temptation for the animators to create parodies of famous brands and advertising billboards and the like, littering them around the set.  When the parodies are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, to such a degree that I spent a good half of the movie thinking that there was genuine product placement going on for Coca-Cola until it got a close-up, though, you have failed at your job.  There are not-100%-intrusive places for product placement in movies.  An animated film aimed at kids’ about undersea life is not one of them.  This should have been cut down immediately in the concept stage of the film’s lifespan, especially since it’s one of the quickest ways to figure out exactly when the film came out and the culture it spawned from.

Well, we’re out of time.  I hope you enjoyed this systemic breakdown of just a small percentage, about 14% tops, of the ways that Shark Tale is a complete and total failure, a blight on DreamWorks Animation, the animation industry as a whole, and the world in general, and a completely creatively-bankrupt exercise in cynical cash-grab movie-making.  Fortunately for us all, despite being one of the year’s highest grossing films, we have been spared any further adventures in the world of Shark Tale as, apparently, it didn’t play well overseas.  Which is demonstrably false, but I guess is better for business than just admitting that everyone at DreamWorks done f*cked up and would prefer that we never speak of this again.  A sentiment that I will be happy to oblige…

…right after I subject you all to The Dance Party Ending.

See you next week, folks!


2004 was the year that DreamWorks Animation forcefully staked their claim to the feature-length animation landscape.  Two giant financial successes, one of which also being a critical smash, will do that to your standing.  The company would spend the next few years solidifying its position as one of the major players in that field, albeit mostly at the cost of the critical acclaim that stood them out from the pack of pretenders at the beginning of their career, keeping up a steady output of two films every year for almost the entire remainder of the decade.  Next week, we enter 2005 and look at the beginnings of their second mega-successful franchise, Madagascar.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch might not ever get rich, but it’s better than digging a ditch.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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Am I Ruining Cartoons?

Callum Petch believes that he may be part of the problem and for that he is not sorry.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

gravity fallsI am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek.

This epiphany hit me the other day when I read an article on The AV Club about the official Season 5 renewal for the hit animated kids’ show (and one of my personal favourites on the air today) My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.  It was a thought that had been rolling around in my brain for a while, anyway, the side effect of being really friggin’ anxious about everything you ever do because trying to live like a good human being is really hard in this crapsack of a world, as well as a theory I had been working on a bit, but that article made it clear.  In fact, I’ll just quote the exact sentence that led me to this realisation.

“The 26-episode order will push the series over the milestone 100-episode mark, a remarkable achievement for a show primarily aimed at teaching young girls self-confidence, the importance of friendship, and the fact that anything that’s special for them will eventually be co-opted and stolen by dudes.”

The Brony fanbase, adult fans of the show (typically depicted as male as that apparently makes for a much more interesting narrative when reporting on them), have become inexorably tied to the show and the discussion surrounding it.  If you haven’t even heard of the show it’s based on but you spend some time on the Internet, you’ve still probably heard of the concept of Bronies.  It’s inescapable, to an extent that I honestly fear that, once the show is done and wrapped, everyone has moved on to other things and the passage of time sends the show fading into memory, its legacy won’t be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was a great show that broke down gender stereotypes thanks to strong writing and characterisation.”  Instead, I’m incredibly worried that its legacy will be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was the show that gave the world Bronies.”  That’s it or, at the very least, the show will get a passing mention in maybe paragraph 12.  Neither outcome is one I particularly desire.

I don’t consider myself a Brony but I do consider myself a very big fan of the show, enough to own several shirts and the second season on DVD, enough to frequent the show’s main fan-site, and enough to have to talk myself out of walking into Build-A-Bear and getting a Rarity plushee every single time I walk past my local store (I also have an affinity for cute things, so that may not be just the fan in me talking).  My rejection of the Brony tag comes primarily because I don’t associate myself wholeheartedly as a member of any fandom anymore (and partly because “Brony” is second only to “Avatards” on my list of Embarrassingly Stupid Fandom Portmanteaus) and, therefore, keeps me at a distance.  I enjoy the show for what it is; very well written, strongly characterised, funny, gorgeously animated and full of a tonne of heart.  I enjoy it for the reasons I imagine its target audience would, not because there’s a two-second reference to Bioshock Infinite in the background of one of the episodes and not because I want to marry Twilight Sparkle (that is not a joke and is still nowhere near the most disturbing thing I have come across from fans of this show on the Internet, trust me).

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if that, appreciating and loving the show for what it is, is a problem in and of itself.  I understand that this is a kids’ show, made to be enjoyed firstly by little girls from ages 5 to 8, and I would never want the show to start pandering to myself, the older male fan.  I am a periphery demographic.  Yet that periphery demographic is the one driving discussion of the show, it’s the one that has become the focal point of discussion surrounding the show.  Hell, I wouldn’t have given it a test-run just over two years ago (I ended up accidentally picking one of the episodes that requires prior character knowledge, which is why I didn’t try again until my growing knowledge of animation led me in the direction of anything with the name Lauren Faust attached to it about six months later) if it weren’t for the periphery demographic making a giant noise about it.  And through all of this I wonder, what about the little girls from ages 5 to 8?  The ones the show was made for?  How do they feel about the show basically being stolen out from under them by grown-ups whose mere existence may have forever tainted the show for future generations?

Probably not too much, in all honesty.  The merch keeps selling, the ratings keep climbing (as far as I can tell, most of the adult fandom gather together to watch live streams on the Internet instead, which don’t count) and the kids still care enough that there are more than enough of them to turn up to most of the 900-bazillion fan conventions that have sprung up for the programme to redress the balance somewhat (I may spend a lot of my free time watching VA panels on the Internet, not just ones for this show, don’t judge).  Plus, even with the peripheral demographic, the show has yet to forget about its target audience.  It doesn’t openly pander to the periphery demo (the few times when it has have been the most cringe worthy things the show has done) and it still has the same style, voice and attitude that it did when it started, just with a slight bit more maturity to represent the growing up of its target audience.  The Bronies may dominate the conversation (enough to have two separate feature-length documentaries on their existence made) but the kids still have the show.  They still exist which goes some way to lowering my anxieties.

But this is not a feeling that is just linked to My Little Pony.  Regular followers of my Twitter may be well aware that I am a big fan of Gravity Falls.  For those who don’t follow my Twitter or aren’t aware: I am a big fan of Gravity FallsA big fan.  It is fast, it is hysterical, it is gorgeously animated, superbly voice acted, excellently plotted and full of immense heart.  It is one of the best shows on TV and I don’t know a single person in its target audience who watches it.  Of course, one could put this down to the fact that I don’t live in America and I don’t hang around children (…probably could have phrased that better) but I see a lack of kid fandom or references to children anywhere in discussion of the show, even though its target audience is children aged 7 to 11; that’s what the TV-Y7 rating is for.

Instead, it’s a collective group of intense adult fans combing the show for clues to its mysteries.  The show’s creative staff (creator, writer and voice actor Alex Hirsch, especially) lean on the show’s more grown-up fandom in conversation much more frequently than those in other shows I know do (Hirsch even all but said that it’s down to us if we want Disney to release merch for the show).  I’ve seen precisely one kid at a panel for the show (they asked a question that Alex, who teases and trolls like a master, wasn’t allowed to answer, it was cute) and few, if anybody, would refer to the show as “a kids’ cartoon,” even though it kinda is.  We’re about to enter the second season so we’ll get an answer then as to if the periphery demographic have managed to infect the product we adore so, but it worries me as to whether the target audience cares at all about Gravity Falls.  And if that is the case, then have we adults hijacked the show from them and co-opted it for our own?

Maybe it’s a question of gender roles and gender narratives.  My fear of my stealing of Gravity Falls from its target demo is less vocal because the talk surrounding the fandom is non-existent, arguably because the target demo for Gravity Falls is not exclusively little girls and the story “Adults Enjoy Watching Cartoon For Children” is not as sensationalist as “Grown Men Love My Little Pony”.  You could argue that it’s the same reason why the very large and very vocal adult Adventure Time periphery don’t get any such “co-opting” claims or fears; ditto Regular Show.  They make up a huge percentage of the fandom for Adventure Time, we’re talking near-Sherlock levels of activity on Tumblr…  OK, maybe not (practically nothing else on Tumblr gets close to Sherlock levels of devotion), but you get the general idea.  From what little I’ve glimpsed on the Internet (I’m still yet to get into Adventure Time, I keep switching off because the first season is just weird and rough as all hell), they’re basically a well-organised fan convention away from being near equal to the size and scale of Bronies.

Except that Adventure Time and Regular Show are barely for kids as it is.  They both sport TV-PG ratings and wear them with pride, watch either show (in their American formats, for the love of the Maker, if you’re going to watch either of these shows, do not watch their bowlderised UK edits) for more than three minutes and you’ll get why they’re intended for an older audience than My Little Pony (TV-Y) and Gravity Falls (TV-Y7).  It’s hard to steal something from a group of society if it’s not exactly being made primarily for them as it is.  And besides, the best cartoons aren’t just enjoyable for kids.  They’re enjoyable on multiple levels for all audiences: there’s a great throw-away scene in Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends where the show’s creator Craig McCracken pops up in its universe that caused my 19-year-old self to almost fall out of my chair in gleeful amazement.  But the scene also works if you’re young and have no idea who the guy is because the joke is rooted in the situation, not Craig McCracken.  (Ditto pretty much the entirety of “Frankie My Dear” which becomes extra hilarious if you believe rumours that Mac is based off of a young Craig and Frankie is based off his wife, Lauren Faust.)

Maybe my anxieties are just rooted in lack of the passage of time.  After all, I’m a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls and I don’t feel like my being so is going to/is ruining it for future generations.  If I were a fan at the time it were going out (which I was) but this age, I’d probably feel how I do with My Little Pony and Gravity Falls.  And then you have the collective nostalgic waxing by the Internet every time somebody announces a movie remake/adaptation/reboot of some beloved Saturday morning toy commercial (Transformers, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, most recently, Power Rangers).  Perhaps the distancing effect of time creates the effect that things are now allowed to be freely appreciated by everyone equally, regardless of their age or the work’s intended audience.

But… just what if none of this matters?  What if I’m not actually co-opting jack?  Yeah, I may be a big fan of cartoons made predominately for kids, but does that mean I’m truly ruining it for the kids?  No matter how large the Brony fandom gets, no matter how many conventions they create, no matter how loud they may get on the Internet, no matter how many Rule 34 ship-drawings of Applejack and Rainbow Dash there may be, and no matter how many plushees get sodomised by people that I would like to forget exist, thank you kindly, the little girls aged 5 to 8 will still have the show.  They will always have the show.  Friendship Is Magic hasn’t changed due to the stuff surrounding it; if anything the show has strengthened its resolve to non-corporate outside influences.  The target audience will still have the show.  Everything else is just noise.

Maybe the simplest way to resolve this problem is to just stop labelling cartoons as explicitly for kids in daily conversation.  I don’t mean “stop making cartoons directly for kids,” not at all.  But what I mean is that we should stop having to separate kids’ stuff from adult stuff so much.  A random episode of The Amazing World Of Gumball has way more laughs and stronger characterisation than The Big Bang Theory at its best, for example.  I have heard that Steven Universe blows most current prime-time dramas out of the water (I need to get around to watching it).  The Legend Of Korra and its more famous original series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, are almost never referred to as kids’ cartoons even though they are; that’s the kind of level they operate on.  You class something as “for kids” and you immediately class it as “other”, something that requires lowered expectations, a different metric for success and can only be enjoyed by its target audience.

Entertainment can be enjoyed, loved and embraced by all.  So what if mainstream society is co-opting something made primarily for a specific demographic?  Who said they’re trying to?  Maybe they’re just in love with a show and don’t care about its “other-ness”?  If we had a generation of children get really into Community, would we be accusing them of co-opting media that’s not for them?  No, because that would be dumb.  Good media is good media and we shouldn’t be discouraging people from liking good things because “it’s not supposed to be for them”.  This is why I never pull any punches when I review films aimed at kids because crap shouldn’t be given a Get Out Of Jail Free card and quality should not need an appended asterisk.

So, yeah, I am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek.  But I don’t care and I’m going to keep on preaching about how Gravity Falls is the best thing to hit TV since Community debuted because I refuse to be made to feel bad for liking something that’s apparently not supposed to be for me.  Maybe this makes me selfish, stealing away pleasures designed for people who don’t often get enough pleasures aimed at them.  Maybe this makes me progressive, somebody who is sick of barriers dividing what is supposed to be enjoyable to who and who thinks that cross-demographic enjoyment on equal levels is something to be encouraged not shunned.  Maybe it’s a bit of both.

All I know is that I don’t care either way.  Now, would you pass the remote?  Wander Over Yonder is about to start.

Callum Petch has been putting up with your constant whining.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

300: Rise of an Empire

300-rise-of-an-empire-bannerDespite its competent production, 300: Rise of an Empire is a disgusting and repulsive piece of dreck.

by Callum Petch

I honestly don’t think that anybody involved with the creative side of 300: Rise of an Empire is a bad person.  OK, maybe Frank Miller, but other than this being a very loose telling of his unpublished Xerxes series he has nothing to do with the film in question.  This sign of good faith, admittedly, is because I prefer to try and see the good in most people (I may physically be 19, but my mental age and naivety is a lot lower) and also because I don’t know anybody involved with the creation of 300: Rise of an Empire personally, so I’d feel kinda bad calling them bad people sight unseen.  What I don’t think anybody involved does have, however, is any kind of self-awareness.  Like, none.  At all.  See, if they did have some self-awareness, then they might have realised that the movie they were responsible for making is actually horrifically misogynistic, racist and supportive of doomed offensives.

I’m going to stop for a second here before I get down to business.  This review is not going to talk much about the film in the way that you may typically see films reviewed.  You know: I give a plot summary, point out some good stuff and some bad stuff, praise or trash the acting and wrap up from there.  Purely technical terms, “[x action scene] was pretty exciting, [y actor] was as convincing as a cardboard standee of [y actor]”.  No, that’s not happening here and if that’s what you’re looking for, I am sorry to disappoint you.  Fact of the matter is, how this film is as a constructed product (and that constructed product is “boring meeeeeeeeehhhhh”) is but a distraction from the more problematic undertones that this film seems to unintentionally peddle.  I will eventually talk about the film as you would expect me to, but that’s only if there’s still time.  Take this info how you may and either keep reading or don’t.

OK, into the breach.

The major problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, the problem that left me leaving the cinema feeling dirty for having experienced it, is that it doesn’t think.  It’s so determined to be cool, to be action-y and manly and exciting and violent and “LOOK, THAT GUY’S RIDING A HORSE IN A NAVAL BATTLE THROUGH FIRE!!” that it never seems to just stop and think about what it’s actually doing.  It has noble Greeks facing off against eeeeevilll Persians… where the Greeks are all white or tanned and the Persians are of a foreign persuasion.  It has a badass female character who actually has the most developed backstory of anyone else in the film… and then makes her a villain with The Tragic Backstory (the one tragic backstory that all male writers, without fail, will saddle their Dark Action Women with to justify their behaviour) and a quirk that I can’t talk about because it constitues a spoiler but OH MY GOD.  It has a hero who fights for democracy and knows that Leonidas and the 300 Spartans are doomed for their hubris… except that he’s counting on it failing because it will unite everyone behind their senseless sacrifice and milks that for all its worth.

This is the issue.  On paper, divorced from further context, these sound fine.  Good vs Evil is the basis for most every story, well-developed and badass female characters need to be more of a frequent presence in action movies and having characters recognise that the Spartan march isn’t as romantic a notion as it sounds are all great ways to go.  There’s a lot you can do here.  But, for some utterly bewildering reason, the film keeps making the worst decisions with these ideas simply because it sounds cool.  And at no point did anybody stop anyone else involved and explain to them the wider implications of what their decisions entail.

Take, for example, Themistocles (Strike Back’s Sullivan Stapleton rarely showing the charm and charisma he showed in Strike Back) and his attitudes towards the Spartan march on Hot Gates.  He knows it’s doomed and he knows it’s foolish, as you can tell because every so often he voices his concerns that they’re going to get slaughtered, yet his entire plan revolves around lionising the 300 as martyrs to the cause of Greek democracy, thereby uniting Greece against the Persians.  I take issue with this because this, to me at least, gives off the impression that those involved are supportive of doomed offensives against enemies because of the propaganda material they provide.  Having the lead character very occasionally state his belief that the Spartans’ offensive will fail is not enough of an offset for the scene in which he gets said news and reacts with (thanks to the very limited range of emotions characters display in this film) what one can charitably describe as glee.  I’d like to see Themistocles’ take on The Battle Of The Somme, he’d likely grumble a bit about its doomed-to-failure-ness but then base his entire plan around claiming it to be the greatest piece of tactical mastery the British Forces ever came up with.  Because that’s how you unite the peoples.

Quite honestly, though, that’s nothing compared to the film’s two female characters.  Yes, two.  Admittedly, I’m pretty sure that’s one whole person of the female orientation more than the original 300 provided us with, but it’s still a man-run show, despite Eva Green as Artemesia trying her damndest otherwise.  Despite her ever omniscient narration, Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey who I really wish would star in an action flick that knows how to use her for once) is otherwise in the film only three other times and two of those involve her sulking and refusing to help the Greeks.  I’m not saying that she needed to spend the majority of the film fighting alongside the Greeks and slaughtering people left and right; what I am saying is that she needs a character.  Because she doesn’t have one.  She has the Obstructive Bureaucrat archetype and that’s it.

As if to make up for this, Artemesia is easily the most developed character populating Rise of an Empire.  But, yes, said development involves a childhood where [x] happens and then she spends the next several years [y] before being left for dead, found by That One Persian Guy From The Last 300 Who Was Also In (The Much, Much, Much Better) Spartacus: Blood And Sand.  Assuming that those of you reading this are relatively seasoned movie watchers, you should already be able to figure out what x and y are.  But although it left a bad taste in my mouth (because I am so sick of lazy filmmakers always going for [y] when they want to justify their Dark Action Women), it wasn’t derailing the show and especially not Eva Green’s performance, which I can basically equate to a ham and cheese interpretation of Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Of everyone else in this film, she’s the only one who’s having any fun and not just relying on their physical presence to carry them through.

Except then the film frames her insane lust for violence down to not having a good strong man fighting alongside her.  It’s hinted at early on, when she notes that she’s “surrounded by thousands yet I feel so alone” (or words to that effect) about her underlings’ lack of success in bringing down the Greeks.  Then it becomes all but full-blown text when she invites Themistocles to neutral ground, turns into a temptress and…  No, I’m not going to spoil it.  Needless to say, it frames all of their actions afterward, including the final battle, in a much uglier light and culminates in an action that, the very second the inadvertent subtext that the film had amassed up to that point joined up with the action in question in my head, caused me to unintentionally shout out “JESUS H. CHRIST” in the crowded cinema.  I was that disgusted by what I saw.  And my leading to this realisation and outburst wasn’t on purpose, I wasn’t trying to see the action as something awful, my brain had simply applied what the film had inadvertently told me about Artemesia beforehand to that action and the reaction unfolded.  I felt dirty for having witnessed it and, if you too pay attention to the subtext, you will know it when you see it.

Quite honestly, on any other day, the fact that the Greeks black up for the finale would have been the headline, here.  OK, their faces are supposed to be painted like that of a white skeleton on a black back-nope that looks even worse written down.  Not to mention the fact that, again, we have a predominately white cast representing absolute good fighting a predominately non-white cast representing absolute evil.  That was a problem in the first 300, it was a problem in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender and time has not made it any better.  See, the problem with doing cool things without thought is that stuff like this happens.  You get across a tonne of unfortunate implications and enough of them can make the whole film a slowly more repulsive experience that gets harder to tolerate the longer it goes on.

Stepping away from the subtext, now, although, quite frankly, discussing the film removed from it feels pointless.  See, Rise of an Empire, which takes place before and during and after 300 and depicts Themistocles’ attempts to unite Greece against the invading Persian army and navy, is a competently made and forgettable action flick.  If its various bits of inadvertently horrendous subtext weren’t there, this review would not currently be halfway through its third page.  That’s how dispensable this film is.  Excepting Eva Green, nobody turns in a particularly noteworthy performance.  After the first particularly exciting and interesting naval battle, the rest blend into one anonymous amorphous blob.  The hand-to-hand fight scenes are “meeeeh” and the copious CG is clearly going for stylish but too often seems to use that as an excuse for just plain sloppy switches between live-action actors and CG models handling the more exciting moments (pretty much the entire opening battle is done in CG, to an extent that makes me wonder why the actors even bothered coming in that week).  And the signature Zack Snyder “slo-mo-speed-up-super-slo-mo-speed-up-slo-mo-again” visual style that’s perfectly aped by director Noam Murro is still really stupid and nowhere near as cool as it thinks it is.

In other words, it’s an inoffensive product.  A bland, average and dull movie that doesn’t have anything bad happening on the surface or within its individual components.  All of the film’s big, giant, offensive, enjoyment-killing problems come from the inadvertent subtext that it presents with that big, dumb, loud, violent and inoffensive surface.  More forgiving critics or fans of the film will insist you need to “turn off your brain to appreciate it”.  I’m sorry but fuck that.  Firstly because it presents the incorrect notion that fun movies don’t need to be smart (and I wouldn’t even call this one fun, in all honesty, unless “mind-crushing dullness” sounds like your idea of a party) but also because it gives off the idea that it doesn’t matter what kind of horrible ideology and iconography a film can slip by as long as the surface is cool enough, and that is a concept I refuse to abide by.

Words and actions carry unintended meanings and consequences and for every 10 people (most likely men, in all honesty; this is a film made for straight, hormonal and possibly teenaged men) who watch the war room sequence that I started describing earlier with glee, there will be at least 1 other person horrified by what they are seeing because they aren’t distracted by the pretty lights.  They paid attention to the undertones of the film’s cool sequences and they started getting uneasy.  The film shouts “Look at these beefy white men slaughtering all of these evil baddies!  Isn’t this fun?  Pay no attention to their skin colour, if you do you’re thinking way more than we did when we made it!”  “Isn’t this line we gave Eva Green badass?  She’s so strong and powerful and sexy!  Just divorce it from everything else that surrounds it as, in context with what surrounds it, it may be kinda disturbing but who cares BADASS FIGHT SEQUENCE!  COOL COOL COOL!”  but that person is having none of it.  They’re disturbed, offended, worried that the slightly sickening undertones are being played off for fun.  Just another gory, dumb action romp.  You can’t read too much into these things(!)

No.  Fuck that.  The idea that I should let 300: Rise of an Empire off for its accidental racism, misogyny (dear Maker, I will never get that action out of my head, and if you’re dying to know what it is tweet me and I’ll tell you) and whatever-the-word-is-for-attitudes-towards-senseless-sacrifice-that-I-don’t-agree-with because it’s supposed to be a big dumb action film and I shouldn’t read so much into these things is deplorable and I refuse to accept it.  We shouldn’t let films off for being “good enough given the circumstances” or to state that “turning your brain off” will somehow increase your enjoyment for a film.  No, we should just demand better goddamn movies and take films with as disgusting an inadvertent subtext as 300: Rise of an Empire to the same task as we do genuinely racist films like Birth of a Nation.  Being a big, dumb action film should no longer be an acceptable pass-grade excuse for a problematic film such as this one.

When I left 300: Rise of an Empire, I felt like I had set cinema back several years.  Do not.  Spend money. On this.

Callum Petch is outta control but he’s playing a role and he thinks he can go to the eighteenth hole.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!