One Thing I Love About Hamilton

We’ve been hearing such effusive praise about Hamilton for so long that I’m not surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But I am surprised that the ending had me ugly-crying.

The title photo is of the Great Gasp ride visible over the entrance to Six Flags Over Georgia.

For years, I’ve been hearing about how Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theater. I’ve never had the patience or money to get tickets for a live performance, so I’ve just had to listen to the soundtrack and take everybody else’s word for it. I thought the music was good but nothing exceptional enough to warrant such universal praise, so I figured that there must be something spectacular in the live production — maybe Hamilton dodges a falling chandelier like Phantom of the Opera, or the founding fathers form a roller-skating train like Starlight Express.

Like much of the rest of the country, I finally got to see the filmed version on Disney+, and I think now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the brilliance of the show isn’t dependent on any big moment of spectacle — to be honest, I had it running in the background and was only halfway paying attention as I was doing something else, so I completely missed the time-rewinding during Angelica Schuyler’s song, and I only heard afterwards that it was one of the most breathtaking moments of the play. And even only giving it half my attention, I still loved it, so I’m expecting to love it even more when I finally get to watch it without distraction.

The brilliance of the show is that it’s two and a half hours showcasing one standout performance after another, and it’s all a celebration of intelligence, wit, diversity, integrity, ambition, and the American ideal. It’s hard to describe how nice it was on July 3, 2020 to be seeing a bunch of phenomenally talented people all getting together to celebrate intelligence and integrity and diversity. Even if it was a relic of the Obama administration.

Part of the reason it feels so relentlessly intelligent is because it’s packed with meaning — on top of all the wordplay itself, there are layers upon layers of things that the play is saying implicitly. One of the unexpected advantages to first seeing after everyone else in the world has spent five years obsessing over it: the internet is full of interpretations and lists and even — ugh — “explainers” pointing out details that a first-time viewer probably missed. The speed at which characters rhyme indicates their mental state or their self-confidence, and even the way that they move across the stage suggests their character. It’s daunting to think that not only does the play have more words than most in sheer number, but that every single one feels meticulously planned and placed.

And even the casual viewer can pick up on the most obvious things that the play says implicitly rather than explicitly. The casting itself is brilliant. It’s relatively easy to see why a Puerto Rican from New York City would choose to empathize with and emphasize Hamilton’s immigrant status. It’s significant to cast a black man as Thomas Jefferson. It’s significant to cast women of different races as the Schuyler sisters. It’s significant to show how women’s roles were prominent in Hamilton’s story, especially since our most popular stories about the founding of the USA usually act like women didn’t even exist apart from Betsy Ross, or an occasional nod to Dolly Madison.

I admit that when I first heard about the play, I thought that the casting was a good move, but effectively little more than a stunt, like gender-swapping roles in a well-known story, or setting Shakespeare in a different time period. But after seeing Hamilton, I realize I was completely wrong. It’s not the fiction of theater to show a diverse group of people active in the formation of the country; the fiction has been the centuries-long lie telling us that only white men were making a difference. I already knew that lines like “Immigrants, we get the job done” got applause in the play, but I feel like the stronger statement is made as soon as the actors walk on stage. It asserts that the history of America belongs to every American on that stage. Not just the white men who’ve traditionally dominated the story.

(If I were ever to write a “One Thing I Love About All Narrative Art,” it would be when an artist is able to use the format of the storytelling to deliver more of the story than is told explicitly. When changes in voice or pacing suggest greater narrative changes, or when assumptions made by the audience are subverted to make them nervous or uneasy. I love that stuff, and it gets my highest respect when I find it in any work, from Psycho to The Hunger Games novel).

So I love all those aspects of the play, but that’s not the “one thing” I’m focusing on here. All of the wit, and intelligence, and knowledge of the history of the nation and the history of theater, and multiple layers of meaning, would all make for a great thesis and likely a very entertaining play. What pushed Hamilton from “excellent” to “sublime” for me is the ending. I’d already been weepy for most of the last act of the play, with its concentration on death and the legacy we leave to others, but the last moment had me ugly-crying. It took me completely by surprise.

I didn’t expect to be surprised by Hamilton, any more than I was surprised by Titanic. Even people like me, who can never remember history classes, can remember the “Got Milk?” commercial. And even if you don’t have that context, Aaron Burr gives away the ending in the opening number, and the play foreshadows the duel twice. The final songs do recount what’s known about the characters from the historical record, but they’re not about that so much as about the play itself, and the reason it exists. (Which is why criticizing the play for historical “inaccuracies” misses the point entirely). It is explicitly about stories, how they’re told, and why they’re told. Stories about the “founding fathers” are deliberately made semi-mythical and removed from everyday life, to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution: the battles fought and the words written by these brave and god-like men must never be sullied or diminished by your shallow, modern concerns.

But Hamilton is encouraging a different kind of patriotism. It humanizes these historical figures, not for their benefit, but for ours. It says that these stories are our stories; they belong to every one of us as Americans. A lot of mostly white people have spent many, many years trying to spin history to suggest that a decidedly anti-monarchist revolution brought about its own type of monarchy. Through battles or writing, they earned a kind of divine right, and were gracious enough to allow everyone else — women and people of color, purely coincidentally — to enjoy the bounty of the country that they created. Hamilton asserts that these people aren’t so different from any of us, and we have the right — and responsibility — to choose our own fate just as much as they do.

And again, that would’ve made for a perfectly moving and satisfying ending to the musical, earning the kind of blurb that Disney+ uses (and which I genuinely love), “the story of America then, told by America now.” But then Eliza, who’s outlived everyone by decades, and who’s told all of their stories, and who’s made so many contributions of her own, finally reaches the end of her story, and her very last moment is to look to heaven, and gasp.

I’ve heard from family members about what they saw or heard during their loved ones’ final moments. I’ll never forget it; it brought a kind of hope and comfort and wonder to something that could otherwise be fearful or sad. The moment in Hamilton is ambiguous, but I read it as rapture — a person unprepared to suddenly be met with so much indescribable beauty. Again: cue the ugly crying.

I found out from a Wired interview with the cast, of all places, that the gasp is not even in the original play. That stunned me, because it seemed the key to the final act if not the entire play. The end of the play is largely about death, loss, grief, and running out of time. They’re ideas well-communicated, but also communicated in a surprisingly traditional way, for a musical that fearlessly combines so many different musical styles and clever wordplay. The song “Quiet Uptown” repeats “have pity” on the characters who are going through “unimaginable” grief, which are both distancing. They suggest sympathy instead of empathy.

But that final gasp shows shocking empathy. It’s humanizing to show that the figures credited with founding America all had their own failings and their own personal tragedies. But while we may not ever fight in a war, or get in a duel, or be betrayed, or lose a child, there’s one thing that every single one of us will go through; the ultimate thing that makes all of us human. After seeing the other characters spending their lives obsessing over their legacy and their places in history, Eliza’s final song transcends all of that. Her proudest achievement isn’t her “place in the narrative,” or a monument, but her work to help people. It has little to do with “history,” and everything to do with how we live in the present. What’s great about that moment is that you can interpret it however you want. My interpretation is that she’s rewarded, not for her role in Alexander Hamilton’s story, but for her own life well-lived.

Do or do not; there is #nohomo

More spaceships and laser swords, less snogging.

Whenever Star Wars comes into contact with the internet, dumb things happen. One of the most annoyingly dumb things recently has been the insistence that the new sequel trilogy is a perfect stage for better LGBTQ representation, but Disney overlords have kept it from happening.

The kiss between two women at the end of Rise of Skywalker is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it example of tokenism, they claim, kept short so it could pander to liberals but still be easily cut for less gay-friendly foreign markets. And of course the characters of Finn and Poe were obviously well-suited to be a couple, until skittish Disney execs insisted that they each be paired off with hetero romantic interests.

As a red-blooded American white male gay nerd, I’m calling that a bunch of nonsense.

Of course I’d prefer it if a company as large as Disney would choose to stand its ground. Release the movie with its completely innocuous kiss between two women, and let the market decide. (Retaining the arbitrary and unearned kiss between the trilogy’s hero and villain is a lot more offensive, anyway). But then they’d get accused of cultural insensitivity, so I guess there’s not one easy solution. At least the Huckabee family has to see it and get angry about it, so that makes me happy to think about.

But as for making it a more significant beat in the story, my question would be: why? What do you hope to get out of it? These aren’t stories that do a great job with romance in any case; the most successful one in the entire series is still insufferably corny in places. If it’s just a question of representation — which is absolutely important — then I think showing two secondary characters kiss during a happy moment is a great way to handle it.

When I was growing up watching these movies, I would’ve been happy to see any acknowledgement that other gay people exist, and that they don’t need to be primarily defined by or driven by their sexuality. In a series that doesn’t tend to focus on the personal lives of any of its secondary characters, devoting more time to those characters’ relationship would inevitably feel shoehorned.

The one that I feel a lot more strongly about is the business about Finn and Poe. With that, I can’t be as sympathetic to the call for representation, because I think it’s actually a huge and disappointing step backwards. In modern American entertainment, it’s getting increasingly common to see representation of two men in a romantic relationship. What’s still disappointingly rare, though, is to see two men in a supportive, affectionate relationship that isn’t romantic or sexual.

I’m sure that the people pushing for a Finn & Poe romance (including Oscar Isaac himself) believe they’re pushing for open-mindedness, but I think it just reinforces the kind of toxic masculinity we’re already overwhelmed with. It sets a limit on how much two men can show they care about each other before it turns gay. They hug, they’re concerned about each other, they even share clothes — now let’s see them kiss!

Believe me, nobody wants to see Oscar Isaac kissing another dude more than I do, but I think the better and more valuable representation — which could impact more of the audience than just the people who identify as gay — is to show men being caring and supportive of each other without having to be romantically linked. If for no other reason than it reminds all the guys in the audience who don’t identify as gay or bisexual that being affectionate isn’t a threat to their sexuality or their masculinity.

Now, the obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker in particular is that they introduced Zorii Bliss as a character whose presence in the movie is at least 75% to give Poe Dameron somebody to mack on. I think they handled it well for the most part, seeing as how she’s portrayed as a bad-ass who’s able to show she cares about someone while still not being just a sexual object. And it gave the movie one of its best moments, when Poe turns on the full smolder, and she shoots him down immediately. But there’s no denying that it’s hella heteronormative.

Since that whole character relationship was already loaded down with the kind of corny, when-do-I-get-that-kiss “romance” that already exists in Star Wars, I say the “best” LGBTQ representation would have been to have Zorii Bliss open the helmet and reveal another man. (Like, say, me. I’ll do it. Just call me). It would’ve felt every bit as shoehorned in, but it would’ve at least been somewhat novel.

But let background characters stay in the background, and let Finn and Poe just be friends. It’s not progress to push for gay characters at the expense of telling men that they can’t be straight and give another guy a hug.

The Rise of Skywalker: The Last Gatekeeper

It’s partly true. Some of it.

This post is full of spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.

While I was psyching myself up for seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I said I was bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the disappointment of The Last Jedi. As it turns out, I didn’t really feel either.

I definitely felt none of the exhilaration of the first movie. The Force Awakens felt like the gasp of new life after someone plunged a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the franchise — (Note: I don’t know if that is actually a thing outside of Pulp Fiction. Please consult your doctor) — but this story was full of bad decisions that they couldn’t just lightspeed-skip over (like, say, an over-long discussion of thermal oscillators or a weird repetition of “kanjiclub”).

At the same time, even as I was shaking my head and mouthing the word “no” over and over, I didn’t feel the miserable deflation I did while watching the bad decisions play out in The Last Jedi. I’ve grown into a begrudging acceptance of that movie — and honestly, it’s a more ambitious and more daring movie than The Rise of Skywalker — but watching it felt like the cold touch of a Dementor was draining me of my renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars.

I think ultimately, JJ Abrams is too talented a filmmaker to make something I can’t enjoy in the moment. I’m hesitant to assign authorship to something as complex as a feature film — especially a blockbuster with as many invested parties as this one — to one person, but the constant through every JJ Abrams project I’ve seen is that they’re all full of charm, momentum, and seemingly boundless potential. Beautiful, charismatic people exchanging snappy dialogue while doing intriguing things. The stories rarely end on a satisfying note, though: starting with the mindset that the story can go anywhere and literally anything could happen means that all that potential energy gets used up quickly. Once it’s run out, the end result tends to either evaporate into meaninglessness, or land with a baffling thud.

Maybe it’s appropriate that watching The Rise of Skywalker felt to me like watching The Return of the Jedi. I left that movie feeling like they’d taken something great and somehow made it silly, overwrought, and nonsensical, to the point of making me wonder whether I’d “grown out” of the franchise altogether. But then I remembered how rad the speeder bikes were!

The Rise of Skywalker is like that, multiplied by ten. I started Return of the Jedi disappointed that they’d only made two movies and were already repeating themselves with Tatooine and another Death Star; this movie brings back a dead villain with no explanation, and then he also has 1000 Death Stars!

To be clear: I’m still 100% on board with the idea of bringing back the Emperor. He’s a great, over-the-top bad guy who could’ve served as the source of all evil across all nine movies. And I still think it could’ve worked, had it been made the driving force of the plot of the last movie, built up to a climactic reveal and final showdown, and tied into all of the events that led up to it. But here, it was introduced in the first line of the opening crawl. And of all the hundreds of questions that could come from that reveal, the least interesting one to explore was “Okay, how do we get there?” But that’s what they chose to focus on.

It’s so bafflingly arbitrary that it retroactively makes the rest of the final trilogy seem smaller and sillier. I’d been able to justify the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke as building on the idea that The Return of the Jedi was a conclusive happy ending for the galaxy. I thought that The Last Jedi gave it weight by asserting that restoring the Old Republic without fixing its problems would just cause the cycle to continue indefinitely. Now, suddenly re-introducing Palpatine with little convincing explanation just makes it seem like they simply didn’t think you could tell a Star Wars story without bringing back the Empire and the Emperor. (I want to be charitable and use the common defense of repetition in the Star Wars movies by saying “it rhymes,” but there’s a part of me that only thinks this rhymes with “schmack of schmimagination.”)

I was left wondering whether the stable boy shown at the end of The Last Jedi now has to be revealed to be a long-lost grandson of Obi-Wan or something. Most disappointing is that Rey’s story has been robbed of all its potential energy built into the last two movies: the focus shifted from “who are you?” entirely to “who were your grandparents and the long line of now-dead heroes who are entirely responsible for your importance in this story?”

Ever since The Last Jedi came out, people have been calling it a case of filmmakers petulantly refusing to “yes, and…” each other. I never bought it, before. Despite my problems with the movie, The Last Jedi didn’t feel like it was arbitrarily throwing away ideas built up in The Force Awakens, so much as turning the story in a new direction to give a counterpoint to the previous two trilogies. But many of the changes in The Rise of Skywalker feel so arbitrary, even petty, that it just makes it feel like watching a bunch of preposterously rich people fighting over a box of Star Wars toys and refusing to share.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with co-writer Chris Terrio that makes me think it maybe wasn’t as clear-cut or arbitrary. (Or petty). Perhaps the major problems that I had with the story weren’t ones of intent, but of execution. They were trying to build on ideas from The Last Jedi, for the most part. But it sounds as if they had a very narrow interpretation of what The Last Jedi was trying to say, felt an obligation to honor a bunch of other people’s interpretation of the franchise (including George Lucas), and then had to deal with the thousands of things that always happen over the course of making any blockbuster, especially such a high-profile one that has to act as the conclusion of nine movies.

The biggest difference between my experience watching The Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is that this time, I knew that Star Wars isn’t over. There’s no sense that it’s time for me to put away childish things, since I’ve got a huge media company pumping out millions of dollars worth of more stuff or me to enjoy at a steady clip.

If you’d told me that my favorite interpretation of Star Wars would be by the guy who was largely responsible for Swingers, I — well, to be honest, I probably would’ve said, “yeah, that checks out.” But it’s still great to see that Disney seems to have taken the best part of the MCU model — giving creators who grew up loving the material the chance and the resources to realize their own interpretation of it —and applied it to Star Wars. I don’t love the extended comedy beat at the beginning of the last episode of The Mandalorian, for instance, but I do love that it was instantly recognizable as Taika Waititi’s unique contribution.

That allows me to focus on The Rise of Skywalker’s speeder bike moments, the parts that it does well:

  • It was great that they put so much focus on having all the main characters going on an adventure together.
  • Although the story felt overstuffed with characters, I did like that their presence was kept character-driven — hinting at a stormtrooper revolt with Jannah, and the scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold story for Zorii Bliss, to emphasize the idea of “regular people” across the galaxy all standing up to the new Empire.
  • I loved the propulsive energy of the first act that kept things moving (even if I felt they were chasing after the wrong things).
  • I still love the inherent charisma of Daisy Ridley, who manages to make an unwaveringly good character still seem interesting and relatable.
  • I loved the scene with Han Solo and the clever repeat of “I know.”
  • I appreciated that they kept at least a trace of the “democratization of the Force” idea alive, with Finn’s growing awareness that he’s Force-sensitive.
  • I loved Adam Driver’s performance after his transformation back to Ben Solo — after two and a half movies with not much to work with other than “really intense,” he made that character so appealing, with relatively limited screen time and just an “ouch” and a perfectly-delivered, Han Solo-esque shrug.
  • And I loved that they did build on the idea of a unique connection between Rey and Ben, incorporating it into two key moments in the plot. It was a great counterpoint to the iconic moment in The Force Awakens in which she takes the light saber from him, to see her give it back.

Ultimately, I just can’t see the point in getting too upset about the disappointing parts of a movie that was this entertaining. That doesn’t mean I’ve “outgrown” Star Wars, or that I need to retroactively dismiss or downplay its importance to me — I’m still one of the guys who got engaged in Galaxy’s Edge this year, and I’m still considering the feasibility of having a wedding ceremony inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It just means we no longer have to settle for what one person’s interpretation of what Star Wars “is.”

While we’ve spent the last decade or so besieged by reboots and re-interpretations and re-imaginings, it’s often seemed like we’re in a cultural death spiral: everyone lacks imagination or ambition, and they’d rather play to nostalgia instead of creating something new. But there’s something uniquely wonderful about the thrill I felt seeing The Force Awakens, or even seeing The Mandalorian deliver a live-action version of a forgotten toy. Dismissing it as nothing more than nostalgia makes it sound completely selfish, instead of acknowledging that it’s more like a shared cultural moment. They’re not simply showing me the things that I used to love; they’re acknowledging “I understand why you love this, because I grew up loving it, too.”

There’s value in telling stories in these shared universes. And of course, there’s nothing stopping creators from using the money and/or industry clout from these shared universes and applying them to make their own original murder mysteries. I can put references to Harry Potter and Pulp Fiction into my opinions about a Star Wars movie, and we all get it because they’re all cultural touchstones that we share. Not narrow-minded fandoms that we’ve got exclusive ownership over. Take the parts of it that you love, don’t get too upset over the parts you don’t, and go on to enjoy — or make — new stories.

Back in middle school, I heard that Star Wars was planned as an epic trilogy of trilogies, and I tried to imagine all the different ways that such a long, huge story could play out. Now, though, limiting it to only nine stories seems remarkably unambitious.

But Not For Me

Thoughts on living in a world where both The Force Awakens and Rogue One exist, and each has huge fans.

I might as well make this week all Star Wars, all the time, since it’s impossible to navigate the internet without seeing someone’s opinion of the new movie or the new TV show blasted in my face. A headline from Forbes in my RSS feed reads “The Rise of Skywalker Is The Worst Star Wars Movie Ever,” and it delights me to see Comic Book Guy getting work again. Plus thinking about spaceships and Force powers is more fun than thinking about any of the other stressors that adults are supposed to think about.

It’s an odd time to be an obsessive Star Wars fan. It’s not a case of being surprised by how big it’s gotten — anyone who was alive between 1977 and 1983 has seen first-hand how it got preposterously huge almost immediately — but in the ways that it’s gotten so big. It’s not just that it’s a huge cultural phenomenon that appeals to millions of people, but that it has to appeal to millions of people who don’t all want the same things from it.

The feeling is similar to that of seeing the long list of Kickstarter backers rolling in the credits of the Netflix Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot: the realization that this thing I’d always felt a personal connection with wasn’t actually targeted specifically at me.

Which sounds like the typical problem of a white middle-aged American man having to grapple with the idea that for the first time in his life, he has to come into contact with things that aren’t made specifically for him. And no doubt that’s a big part of it for me. But there’s a less selfish aspect to it, that’s tied into how I think about art and entertainment in general.

I’ve always thought that the main overriding goal of analyzing a piece of art was to evaluate its success based not just on what I want to get out of it, but based on how well it achieves what it sets out to do. I don’t believe it’s possible to get a truly objective review of anything, but I do think that we should at least be able to distinguish between things that work or don’t work for us, and things that succeed or fail at doing what they wanted to accomplish.

I always think back to a review of The Empire Strikes Back that I read in Starlog magazine, not long after the movie was released. Starlog was a niche magazine aimed directly at a particular kind of genre nerd, and the reviewer prefaced his article by saying that he knew that Star Wars was already a phenomenon, the movie was widely beloved, and he was offering his opinions to an audience that didn’t want to hear criticism of it. Even back then, before the internet and arguments about “SJWs” and who shot first, everybody understood that Star Wars attracted a passionate and not-always-socially-well-adjusted fandom.

But this review was formative for me as a nine- or ten-year-old, because it was the first time I’d seen a review of anything that I didn’t immediately classify as either dismissible trash, or an expression of joy and hype from someone who loved this stuff as much as I do. Honestly, it’s probably the first time it even occurred to me that you could examine Star Wars critically.

The key thing that stuck out to me was that the reviewer brought up points that hadn’t occurred to me while watching the movie six times in theaters, but were still valid criticisms. The space slug couldn’t exist because there was nothing in an asteroid field for it to eat, and the Millennium Falcon would take years to travel from one star system to another if it had a broken hyperdrive. Both are true, but they ultimately don’t matter, because the movies aren’t science fiction and don’t try to be.

But the reviewer also says that Yoda shouldn’t have pulled Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp, because the entire purpose of the training wasn’t to teach Luke that the Force was powerful, but that he could be powerful. That’s a criticism that has always stuck with me, because it’s not based on sci-fi but on story. It’s evident that this was a moment that was intended for spectacle but doesn’t make sense in terms of character development.

Reading that review, and recognizing the distinction between science fiction and story, shaped how I think about every piece of art or entertainment worth thinking about. It’s also why I reject the typical line — Star Wars is for children, and we should put aside childish things — that’s been used as either a blanket defense or a lazy dismissal all the way back to 1977. It’s no doubt intended as a blistering take-down of adults like me, accusing us of refusing to engage with material that’s intellectually or artistically challenging, but in reality, it’s not just snobbish but stupid. It shows a refusal or inability to engage with a piece of art according to its own mission statement, instead of the viewer’s own biases. Which is something I’ve been able to do since I was 9. Suck on that, New Yorker.

That all was thrown into disarray when I saw The Force Awakens and then Rogue One. With The Force Awakens, I realized that it’s completely impossible for me to see it objectively. I’ve heard the criticisms of it, and I have several criticisms of my own, but they’re all but completely irrelevant. It’s not just that I disagree with the opinion that it’s just a retread of the original trilogy; I don’t care about that opinion at all. My enjoyment of that movie still bypasses any rational thought and goes directly to the portion of my brain that loves Star Wars.

Rogue One is the opposite. I still have criticisms of that movie that I think are objectively valid in terms of cinema and storytelling, but in the end my main complaint is that I just don’t think it’s what Star Wars is “about.”

At the same time, there are thousands of people who think Rogue One is exactly what Star Wars is about, and it’s everything they could want from a Star Wars movie. For me to point out all the ways I think it’s off tone is as irrelevant to them as it would be to point out to me that having a bunch of costumed adults standing around a screen talking about a “thermal oscillator” is clumsy and silly exposition.

So it’s distinctly odd cognitive dissonance to see a film that slavishly — and near-perfectly! — re-creates the exact look of the original Star Wars, right down to the sideburns, and still have to acknowledge that it just wasn’t made for me.

I’ve already written about going to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, seeing myself surrounded by so many other middle-aged bearded nerds, and the sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing that at last I’m among My People. But there’s also the realization that many of the people there have an intensely personal connection to Star Wars (and Disneyland, for that matter) like I do, but are expecting to get something entirely different from what I’d recognize as being definitively Star Wars.

As someone who considers art and art interpretation as being fundamentally about communication, it’s kind of unsettling and isolating. I’ve long been able to recognize that even if something doesn’t appeal to me, I can at least engage with it based on what it’s trying to do. But what if I don’t understand what it’s trying to do?

I guess basically what I’m saying is that even if The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be a disappointment, we’ll still have The Mandalorian.

This is not going to go the way I think

Part 2 of jumping on the hype train for The Rise of Skywalker, with my list of things I want to see in the final movie.

Like Charlie Brown getting himself psyched to finally kick that football, I’m letting myself get fully immersed in the hype around The Rise of Skywalker. This series has broken my heart many times, but my last post was about the realization that even my least favorite movies in the series have still somehow fit together to have an overarching theme.

Over the past 40 years, there’ve been a lot of attempts to dismiss Star Wars as simplistic nonsense that’s just for children, and just as many if not more attempts to frame it as my generation’s modern mythology. I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If they can stick the landing, I think the Skywalker Saga can be seen as a complete story that’s still a straightforward case of Good vs Evil — since straightforward stories need not be simple-minded — but with a through-line that reminds us we’re responsible for choosing our own path.

So here’s what I want to see happen in the conclusion of the series, based on the previous movies and what we’ve seen in the trailers. I’m less interested in predicting what’s actually going to happen, because I’m bad at that, and because I still want the finale to surprise me.

Answer the right questions about Rey
Hey, remember back in 1980 when Darth Vader said he was Luke Skywalker’s father, and it was such a climactic moment that wowed everyone in the theater? Don’t you wish these movies would spend the next several decades just delivering that same moment over and over again? Well, you’re not alone, since apparently a lot of people believe the most important question to be answered in the finale is who are Rey’s parents? (Even according to Disney’s own marketing). And a lot of these people simultaneously complain that the new trilogy is too much of a rehash of the original movies, so whatever.

We already got an answer to this question in The Last Jedi, and it was the right answer for Rey’s character and for the series as a whole. There’s this pervasive idea that this is one of the things that was introduced in The Force Awakens and unceremoniously thrown out in The Last Jedi, and that it’ll be retconned now that JJ’s taken back over and can say that Kylo Ren was lying, and Rey is actually a secret Kenobi child or Ben Solo’s sister. Or whatever.

But The Force Awakens was already suggesting that the key question isn’t “who are Rey’s parents?” but “who is Rey?” The first line of the first teaser trailer had Maz Kanata’s voice-over asking, “Who are you?” Rey responds “I’m no one.” The new trailer has Rey saying “People keep telling me they know me, but no one does.” (But it also talks about “destiny,” so who knows?)

In my opinion, this is the one thing that will determine how well the new trilogy completes the story of the entire series. It goes all the way back to the Jedi calling Anakin “the chosen one,” through Yoda saying “wars do not make one great,” to Ben Solo spending the last two movies trying to shed his lineage and the role pre-determined for him before he was even born. It has to say that what makes Rey a hero isn’t her parents or even her Force powers, but the choices she makes.

But still, don’t leave that thread hanging
I think the question of who exactly Rey’s parents are is only important to writing a good Wookieepedia entry, instead of writing a good story. But since she’s spent so much time being driven by the question, it’d be satisfying to get some kind of closure on it.

The practical problem has always been that a reveal of any known character would immediately make that character irredeemably awful. Because whoever it was, they abandoned her to a horrible life in a horrible place. The re-introduction of the Emperor is intriguing, because he’s already an irredeemably awful character.

My bet is that she’s the result of a cloning experiment that Palpatine started when the Empire was still active. That fits in with her starting on the planet with all the other wreckage from the Empire. It also fits in with her “vision” in The Last Jedi, of an infinite line of herself stretching forwards and backwards.

It also allows for some version of her (maybe the “dark” version from the trailer?) to exist during the original trilogy. Which I think is intriguing, because it could re-cast one of Yoda’s lines from The Empire Strikes Back. When Obi-Wan says “That boy is our last hope,” and Yoda says, “No, there is another,” maybe he was talking about not Leia like we’ve all assumed since 1980, but Rey.

Stop trying to make Snoke happen
Another pervasive (and unwarranted) complaint is that The Force Awakens set up Supreme Leader Snoke as this sinister mastermind behind all of the machinations of the First Order that would drive the story of the new trilogy, but then The Last Jedi abruptly got rid of him before he could serve his story purpose.

But I say that that was his story purpose: to set up a dynamic just like the one between Vader and Palpatine in the original trilogy, and then have these new characters choosing to break the cycle.

He was never an interesting villain, and he was never going to be anything other than a less inspired stand-in for Palpatine, like Dash Rendar was for Han Solo. It’s much stronger for the villain in the final trilogy to be someone who stretched all the way back to the prequels.

Make “Skywalker” the new “Jedi”
There are a lot of fan theories about what the title The Rise of Skywalker actually means. My favorite is that it no longer refers to a family name, but becomes a title. Either for Rey herself, or for a whole new class of Force-user who has learned to balance both the light and dark sides.

One of the most insightful parts of that “Movies with Mikey” defense of The Last Jedi is pointing out the common link of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and then Luke all experiencing a catastrophic failure and then exiling themselves away from the rest of the galaxy. It implies that the millennia-old Jedi Order was based on a kind of purity test. Luke was the first person (that we’ve seen in the main continuity) to break that cycle by insisting that Anakin could still be redeemed even after falling to the dark side. But then he didn’t give himself the same benefit of the doubt, choosing to punish himself with exile after his failure with Ben.

Asking for a real gray area feels off tone with the Star Wars universe. I still think that Star Wars is about good guys and bad guys, and it stumbles whenever it tries to get into true moral ambiguity, as opposed to Han Solo-style good guys who sometimes make bad decisions. (That’s why I’m not expecting much from a Cassian Andor series, and I think the character of Doctor Aphra from the comics is just intolerably awful). But I think there’s room for the Star Wars series to have a similar lesson to Inside Out: acknowledging that negative emotions are just a part of us, and it’s not only unrealistic but actually unhealthy to try and keep them suppressed all the time.

By that measure, Luke would be not just the last Jedi but the first Skywalker. He recognized that the dark side and the light side can exist in the same person. And both Rey and Kylo Ren have exhibited more Force power than we’ve seen in the series so far; maybe their power comes from not having to block off a part of themselves, like all the Jedi and Sith have had to do in the past. The stories have frequently talked about “balance in the Force;” maybe that balance was always meant to exist within each person.

Remember that C-3P0 and R2-D2 are the constants of the series
One of the best concepts from A New Hope that fell by the wayside as the series went on is the idea of an epic galactic story that’s told from the perspective of two of its “lowliest” characters. They’ve still appeared in all the movies, but they’ve moved from being close to the audience to being secondary or even tertiary characters as the epic galactic story took all the focus.

Based on the trailer, it looks like C-3P0 is going to play some kind of significant role in the new movie. I’m hoping that it goes all the way back to the prequels, and makes use of the shoehorned coincidence that had him built by Darth Vader.

But ever since they introduced BB-8, he’s been the Cousin Oliver of the series, while R2 is treated like Bobby and Cindy Brady. (If Cindy Brady had put herself into a coma waiting for Johnny Bravo to return from his self-imposed exile). I’m hoping that R2 gets brought back into the story, and ideally, that the entire series ends with the two of them just like it started.

Have a bunch of people riding space horses on the outside of a Star Destroyer
Because why not? It’s the last movie, what else are they going to do?

Every Generation Has a Hot Take

Becoming fully immersed in the hype for The Rise of Skywalker by reconsidering my opinion of the earlier movies.

In the interest of increasing my SEO getting hyped up for the release of The Rise of Skywalker this week, I wanted to change things up and write about a movie before it comes out. It’s kind of fun to go back through the blog and see how my opinions have changed over time, so it should be fun to compare what I expect from the movie to what we actually end up getting.

Before I could start making a list of what I want to happen in the final movie, I had to go back and try to piece together the first eight movies into one cohesive story. It’s been surprising to see how much my opinions about the movies have changed. I don’t have any new favorites, but I at least have more respect for what my least favorite movies of the series have contributed to the story as a whole.

Making Peace With The Last Jedi
There’s one pervasive idea about The Last Jedi that I have a hard time believing. It says that Rian Johnson refused to “yes, and…” any of the stuff introduced in The Force Awakens, choosing instead to throw it all out and deliver his own take on Star Wars. For one thing, I have a hard time believing that any one person (apart from Kathleen Kennedy) could have that level of authorship over such a huge movie franchise. But more significantly, I now believe that it does all fit.

This video from “Movies with Mikey” is a strong defense of The Last Jedi (assuming you can tolerate all of its affectations). It’s convinced me that even the parts of the movie that don’t work are still at least thematically consistent. It’s about rejecting a binary view of morality, in a series that has always ostensibly been about good guys vs bad guys.

Since first seeing The Last Jedi, my feelings on it have gone from complete disappointment to begrudging acceptance. It’s frustrating, because the movie has some amazing visuals, the scenes between Rey and Luke are strong, and the fight in Snoke’s throne room is one of the best sequences in the entire series. I always thought that was dragged down by sub-plots that are off tone for Star Wars, or objectively pointless and silly.

The theme of self-determination is pretty obvious, but I think all of it fits together — Poe’s attempt at mutiny, Rose’s promotion from grunt solider to “featured player,” the Canto Bight sequence showing life in the New Republic separate from the First Order and the Resistance — with the larger theme of rejecting the assumptions that have led to the conflict that drives the rest of the series. I still don’t believe that it all works, but I do have a renewed respect for what it did as a sequel in a larger series, which was to leave the story in a more interesting place than it was when it started.

Making Peace With the Prequels
As I’ve been trying to piece together the story so far to figure out how I want it to end, the thing that’s surprised me the most is how many of the story threads were left with at the end of episode eight were introduced all the way back in the prequels. I still don’t think that the prequels are a story that’s told well, but I’m coming around to the idea that it’s a good story.

The story isn’t just about Palpatine manipulating the Jedi and betraying the Old Republic; it’s about how the Jedi and the Old Republic failed catastrophically, and it’s their own actions that made the Empire possible. The Jedi built the army that would become the Empire’s war machine, and centralizing power among themselves is what made it possible to take them all out with one order.

And the romance between Amidala and Anakin was so clumsy and devoid of chemistry that it’s easy to forget how explicitly the movies blame the Jedi for the tragedy that led to Darth Vader. It was their insistence on rules that made Anakin relatively easy to manipulate. Anakin may have straight-up murdered a bunch of children, but don’t forget that they’re children who were taken from their parents to be trained as warriors who would be forbidden from ever falling in love.

I’d thought of The Last Jedi as a rejection of everything Lucas did with the prequels — turning the story from one about a young hero with humble beginnings who goes on to discover his power and save the galaxy, to one that celebrates wealth and power and the assertion that some people are destined from birth to be heroes or villains. But that was probably my bias showing, and the prequels were trying to introduce the idea that the Jedi and the Old Republic were at least partly responsible for their own destruction.

Remember Endor!
As much as I love The Force Awakens (which is completely and unconditionally), it still seemed odd to me that it starts with direct analogues for the Empire and the Rebellion. I don’t agree with the criticism that it’s just a retelling of A New Hope — since these stories are cyclical after all — but it did seem a weird choice for what was supposed to be part seven of a nine-part series.

I think that’s partly because I’ve spent 20 years thinking of Return of the Jedi as the end of the series, instead of just the end of its own trilogy. The victory on Endor implied that the good guys had won, and the galaxy would return to the good old days of the Jedi and the Old Republic. But it should have been obvious that for the story to continue, we would have to learn that returning to the old system wasn’t good enough.

For this to be a continuation of all of the movies, it has to be clear that while the Empire may have been defeated, all the conditions that led to the Empire in the first place were still in place. I do wish that the New Republic had been shown falling as a result of its own dysfunction, instead of just obliterated by Death Star #3, but I guess that’s why we have novels and comic books.

The key thing I want to see in The Rise of Skywalker is a conclusion to the entire story, and an acknowledgement that going back to the status quo isn’t a real victory. It’s kind of surprising that a story that’s been told in fits and stops of varying quality over 40 years ties together at all, but it actually does. I hope they continue and conclude that story, instead of rejecting or retconning the inconvenient parts. (Except for midochlorians, which remain inexcusable).

So that’s the over-arching theme that I hope gets wrapped up in the finale: self-determination, a rejection of dynasties and destinies, and an acknowledgement that there can be more to a hero than just “light side” or “dark side.” In the next post, I’m making a list of specific things I want to see in The Rise of Skywalker.

Frozen II: More and Less of the Same

Frozen II has all the baggage you’d expect from the sequel to a runaway Disney fairytale blockbuster, but insists on having its characters grow and change.

This review has minor spoilers for Frozen II.

I admit I didn’t expect much from Frozen II. I figured that in the worst case, it’d be another direct-to-DVD sequel, bloated to feature length. But even in the best case, I figured that it’d never be quite able to escape that feeling of desperately trying to recapture the one-in-a-lifetime combination of timing and talent that made the original such an unexpectedly charming breakout hit.

But after seeing — and enjoying the hell out of — Frozen II, I realized that not only did it do all of the “next right things” that an inspired sequel should do, it made me retroactively respect the original even more than I already did.

I’d always thought of Frozen as a happy accident: a not-particularly ambitious Disney fairytale that happened to get the right cast, and make one inspired decision to tell a story about a different kind of true love, that made it stand out beyond all the elements that Disney animation just gets right “by default.” But that’s absurdly dismissive of how many decisions must have gone into the movie. Kristen Bell deliberately wanted to introduce a Disney princess who was clumsy and goofy, who’d appeal to girls like she was growing up. And hearing early versions of songs and seeing deleted scenes from earlier versions of the movie make it clear that the movie’s charm wasn’t effortless but instead the result of many iterations.

That’s something that’s clear after only one viewing of Frozen II. You can immediately see that they refused to rely on just what would be expected from a sequel, and instead make a story that’s explicitly about transformation and maturity. Elsa’s character is more open and more impetuous, Anna’s character is less clumsy and more confident, and even Olaf spends a lot of the movie talking about what it means to grow up.

You can kind of even see it in the song that Disney is pushing as the successor to the movie’s big show-stopping musical number. “Let it Go” is an absurdly catchy Broadway-style song designed to show off Idina Menzel’s talents but also make something that a Main Street full of people can sing along with during the Disneyland fireworks. “Into the Unknown” isn’t anywhere near as catchy (I don’t think any of the songs in Frozen II are, really), but it feels a little more sophisticated. It’s got a range that only Menzel and the guy from Panic! at the Disco can hit.

To be clear, the movie does check off all the requirements of a blockbuster sequel. The characters are smashed together for the sake of having them together again, they make frequent callbacks to the first movie and in particular the runaway popularity of “Let it Go,” and they even have an entire scene where Olaf recounts the first movie. If they’d just done that throughout, it would’ve been insufferable. But I noticed three masterful aspects of Frozen II that I believe show the insistence on maturity and change:

Lighting
Even a layman like myself can see that the movie got a rendering upgrade. The characters look mostly the same as far as I can tell, although their hair and clothing is more complex and sophisticated. (Fortunately, there are fewer of those uncannily appealing characters from the first movie, so that unsettling realization of “Wait, am I actually attracted to an animated character?!” is limited to Kristoff). But the more dramatic changes are to the environments.

Water, rocks, leaves, and trees are all beautiful and more painterly, a purposeful change from a movie that was previously covered in snow. But the more advanced lighting is what I noticed. It seemed similar to the jump from lighting in Monsters, Inc to Monsters University: I’d read that Pixar’s big tech advance for that movie was more sophisticated natural lighting, which was crucial to the story that took place over a school year, allowing you to tell instantly what time of year it was based solely on the quality of light and shadow. The jump from Frozen to Frozen II feels like the transition from winter to autumn — again, thematically appropriate as the story goes from a season of cold to a season of change.

Facial Expressions
This was the first detail that jumped out to me. The characters’ facial animation in Frozen II is outstanding, and it’s key to the thing that makes Frozen unique. Much of the movie’s charm comes from having fairytale characters delivering naturalistic, contemporary dialogue. If you don’t nail the tone of that perfectly — and, frankly, if you don’t have actors like Kristen Bell and Josh Gad bringing their personality to the part — then it comes across as insultingly cheesy, the way 9 out of 10 animated movie trailers have a character mugging the camera and saying “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt!”

But the first movie still seemed to me to apply traditional animation techniques to 3D characters. Their faces are still transitioning between fairly broad keyframes. In Frozen II, the style seemed like a combination of performance capture and keyframe animation. I don’t know what the actual process was, but the effect was as if they’d taken motion capture data from the actors and turned each frame into a professionally animated keyframe. Some scenes seemed to have dozens of subtle shifts in expression. The actors more or less vanish, and it’s as if the Frozen characters are actually delivering their lines.

“Lost in the Woods”
This has to be my favorite scene in the movie. I love that they just went for it. They REO Speedwagoned the hell out of this scene, all the while knowing that a significant chunk of the audience was born after 2010.

And most likely, a significant chunk of the team who made the scene was born after 1990. That’s a trend in pop culture that I really like to see; it feels like people are getting better at being able to make fun of things without being completely dismissive of them. Every aspect of “Lost in the Woods” is simultaneously mocking the power ballad and earnestly loving it. That works for Frozen II because of its careful balance in tone — balanced at the tipping point between mockery and melodrama.

Overall, the movie tries — and mostly succeeds — to carry on all of the charm and and goofiness of the original while also refusing to just make an uninspired victory lap that just repeats the first movie. I can’t go so far as to say that this is a story that demanded to be told, but if they had to make a follow-up to such a blockbuster hit — and why wouldn’t they? — I have to respect the integrity that went into this one. It insists on doing something new, it forgoes the over-simple villain of the first movie in favor of more sophisticated obstacles, it downplays the conventional fairytale story in favor of one that’s about respecting people instead of seeing them as “other,” and it emphasizes that change isn’t just inevitable, but positive.

One Thing I Love About Knives Out

Knives Out is a movie that constantly wants to have it both ways, and it somehow pulls it off flawlessly. (Spoilers within)

There’s a lot of things I love about Knives Out: its clever structure, its cast full of perfect performances, its ability to perfectly nail the tone throughout, its unapologetic assertion of morality. I thought it was very near flawless, and it was a great reminder of how exhilarating it can be to see a movie that wasn’t part of a blockbuster franchise.

But one of the best things is that it kept me surprised throughout, so I’d consider anything outside of the trailers to be a spoiler for the movie. Please don’t read this (or any other reviews for that matter) until after you’ve seen Knives Out.

The one aspect of Knives Out that I’m going to focus on is the way that it wants to have it all both ways, and it somehow manages to pull it off. Based on the trailer, I thought I knew exactly what kind of movie it was going to be, and I was completely on board.

As it turned out, it was that kind of movie, but it also kept surprising me by changing direction. It’s very funny, but without sacrificing its tension or its emotion. The set direction and the opening shot suggest an old-fashioned period 1970s period piece set in a gothic mansion, but a lot of its tension comes from cell phones and topical references. Many of its characterizations are campy and almost over the top, but it also generates real empathy with the characters. It looks like a locked-room whodunnit, but it also has a car chase (even if it’s “the stupidest car chase”).

And one of the most clever and surprising aspects to me: it wants to be both a traditional whodunnit and a Columbo-style whodunnit that reveals the murderer near the beginning of the story. And they both work!

I would’ve assumed that the two types of story were mutually exclusive. There was a pretty great thriller (at least, great in my memory of 1987) called No Way Out that got its tension from having its protagonist trying to manipulate an investigation that would inevitably reveal him to be the murderer. Knives Out weaves that story in and out of a traditional murder mystery, and it’s fascinating to go back and look at how it manages to pull that off.

The beginning of the movie is brilliantly constructed. It has to set up the plot, introduce the characters, establish the tone as funny-but-not-flippant, establish the characters as extreme but not just caricatures, and put the audience in the role of observers who are given more information than any of the characters and will have to piece it all together. All while keeping things moving and preventing the audience from feeling overwhelmed.

The first clever twist is that the audience is set up not to identify with the eccentric detective, but with one of the least likely suspects. The second is the brilliant gimmick of having a protagonist who’s physically incapable of lying.

As a result, it takes a genre that relies on impassive detachment — you assume that everyone’s lying and treat the characters as pieces of a puzzle that the storyteller has laid out in front of you — and turns it into one in which you become personally invested in the main character and the murder victim. Meanwhile, the movie and the characters themselves are all self-aware to know that they’re in a whodunnit, so the analytical part of your brain can keep spinning, putting the clues together and trying to predict what comes next.

By the end of the movie, I realized that while I’d been patting myself on the back for being so clever at several points in the movie, it was at least a step ahead of me, planting red herrings. Not for the mystery so much as the structure of the movie itself. Throughout, I had figured out only as much as the movie wanted me to figure out. I was able to predict just far enough ahead so that I was in sync in the story as all the pieces fell into place.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the special features, commentary, and deleted scenes for this movie, because I’d love to see how it was constructed and I wonder if there were more that was cut out. For instance, one of my minor complaints about it was that Riki Lindhome’s character felt like she was going to play a larger role that never really developed. Similarly, LaKeith Stanfield’s character had some great moments but felt underdeveloped even as an Inspector Lastrade stand-in; was there more at one point, or was this another misdirection?

Regardless, I’m a lot less interested in seeing Rian Johnson do a trilogy of Star Wars movies, and a lot more interested in seeing more of the ongoing Benoit Blanc series. The Maybe B. Blanc Mysteries? As much as I said this was a great self-contained film and a nice break from franchise-driven blockbusters, I can’t help wanting to see more of this from Daniel Craig and Rian Johnson instead of 007 and Star Wars. It has it both ways in so many other respects, so why can’t it be both an independent film and a franchise?

One Thing I Don’t Like About Rogue One

Remembering the brilliant production design of Rogue One means being reminded of all of its story problems and what almost feels like a smear campaign against its own protagonist.

This post has spoilers for Rogue One.

I don’t want to make a habit of this, because half of the premise behind “One Thing I Like” posts was to spend more time praising things I love instead of criticizing things I don’t. But recently I was reminded of just how brilliant Rogue One‘s production design is — possibly the best of the entire Star Wars series — and I started to write a post praising it.

When I began re-watching the movie for the first time since 2016, I didn’t even make it past the first scene before I was reminded of how much the story annoys me.

Rogue One opens with a flashback to our protagonist as a child, spotting Imperial ships arriving in the distance. She desperately runs back to her family farm to warn her parents. She breathlessly reaches the door and runs inside… only to be immediately shut down by her mother, who says “We know.” This movie refuses to let its protagonist have even a single moment’s worth of agency in her own life’s story.

The whole Star Wars franchise is built on a story about a guy whose dad was famous, so the problem isn’t that Jyn Erso’s story is driven by her father’s work on the Death Star. The problem is that her father works on the Death Star, decides to betray the Empire by sabotaging it with a hidden weakness, leaves a message for Jyn telling her what the weakness is and how to exploit it and even how to find the plans, and then tells her in person that she has to get the plans. She’s a character who’s robbed of any personality and not allowed to have any story arc.

The only thing she does of her own volition is in a scene that shouldn’t even exist. The movie presents the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars as a bunch of bickering politicians who, when presented with a way to defeat a weapon that could destroy entire planets, choose instead to just give up. And Jyn’s one attempt at heroics is to deliver a couple of lines with vapid observations about having hope. And she still fails.

I understand that it’s ridiculously complicated to navigate the too-many-cooks nature of Hollywood blockbusters and deliver something that feels like an organic story, and that’s even without billions of dollars and tons of stakeholders involved. And I know Rogue One in particular is notorious for having been extensively re-written and re-shot. It’s easy to play armchair screenwriter and pick apart a movie without being aware of all the parts that were in motion that led to certain decisions.

But that would be an excuse for my other problems with the Rogue One story. Like how it’s bafflingly, stupefyingly off tone in the final act. When I heard the premise of the movie — a bunch of Rebel spies getting the plans for the Death Star — I was imagining a cool James Bond or Mission: Impossible style spy movie set in the Star Wars universe.

Instead, they decided to make a movie that’s literally about a bunch of people stumbling across a beach to get an eight-track tape from one place to another. There are space battles raging overhead, and the movie expects us to thrill as our main characters retrieve a file from a database! Elsewhere, a man bravely struggles to untangle a cord!

But really, fine. I may disagree completely, but I can at least understand someone wanting to make a WWII- or Vietnam-style rag-tag-band-of-misfits war story instead of a spy story. It feels harder to give a pass to what feels like the movie wanting to be about literally any other character than its dumb old girl protagonist.

It feels like when a bunch of boys would start playing with their Star Wars toys and resent having to include the Princess Leia figure, so they just made a token gesture of including her in all the scenes with their rad new Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen figures, until they can get to the last part where Darth Vader totally flips out and slices up a bunch of dudes like a total bad-ass. Or as if the last draft of the script were vetted by the men on the internet throwing tantrums over the character of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. Or Neil LaBute.

Why does the character of Galen Erso formulate and deliver the entire plan from start to finish, leaving Jyn nothing to decide or figure out? Why couldn’t he have been just a bad guy, and Jyn chooses to exploit her knowledge of his work to find the weakness that saves the Rebellion? If they’re dead set on keeping him a good guy, why couldn’t they have kept his reveal hidden until the last act, so Jyn’s forced to try and help rescue him while believing he was evil and betrayed her and her mother?

Why does the character of Cassian Andor even exist? I get that they’re trying (for some reason) to introduce some kind of moral ambiguity to the Rebellion, but there’s no real conflict between him and Jyn apart from the stupid “you tried to kill my dad!” It just seems as if the filmmakers couldn’t trust Jyn to lead the mission by herself.

There’s even a moment where the Rebels have to fake their ship’s call sign to the Imperials, which gives the movie its title. And they don’t even let her do that much; she just glares at the pilot until he does it. They gave it to the one character who should’ve been a macguffin who was instantly forgotten.

Rogue One‘s script is a mess. But the movie made a ton of money and has Darth Vader flipping out and slicing up a bunch of dudes, so nobody complains about anything except for the uncanny valley that Tarkin and Leia fell into. I think what frustrates me so much about it is that the rest of the movie looks so good, and it just nails the look and feel of 1977 Star Wars silently and seemingly effortlessly.

As fantastic as Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are, there are still definitely props and effects shots that feel like they were the best the filmmakers could do with the available tech and budget. The prequels and special editions all feel like a billionaire’s over-reaction to those limitations. Things don’t look better, necessarily, just busier, shinier, heavily green-screened, and computer-generated.

What’s so great about the production design of Rogue One is that it went all-in on the aesthetic of 1977 with the technology of 2015. Somehow, even more than the new trilogy, they nailed the look of all the weapons, goggles, control terminals, and displays. It makes it feel like a true expansion of the original movies. Almost nothing in the prequels ever felt solid or substantial; characters always felt as if they were floating inside a computer, like the full-motion video sequences from early CD-ROM games. The look of Rogue One actually seemed like there was a real galaxy of fantastic stuff just outside of frame in the original movies.

I’ve only seen the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, so it’s probably too early to declare it the savior of the Star Wars universe. But things were looking pretty dire for a while there. You could get the look right or the tone right, but not both at the same time, and not both in something not intended for children. Now maybe things are looking up, and we can see more of this galaxy explored, new stories, new locations, and maybe even women can do things too.

No Toy Left Hanging

Toy Story 4 is my favorite in the series, a perfect farewell to the characters and the more satisfying conclusion I didn’t know I needed.

I can’t write a “One Thing I Love About Toy Story 4” blog post, because I loved pretty much everything about it. If I were forced to pick one thing, it might be how if you stay to the very end of the credits, that one commando action figure finally gets his high five.

One thing I see consistently in reviews is that Toy Story 4 isn’t “necessary,” that the third entry was a perfect conclusion, and the additional installment is well-made but superfluous at best. I disagree. I think it actually reveals what was missing from Toy Story 3, which is something I didn’t notice at the time: that movie didn’t actually complete its main characters’ stories, but instead just left them hanging indefinitely in stasis.

I dug up my thoughts about Toy Story 3 that I wrote right after seeing it for the first time, and I still stand by most of it. (Even though part of it I have to stand by with clenched teeth and an explanation later in this post). The part where I was wrong was stating that Pixar had taken characters I’d assumed would just go on existing in perpetuity, and given them a story arc.

I interpreted the main message of Toy Story 3 as an allegory about growing up: acknowledging the things that we love from our childhood, and moving on with memories of them as important parts of our lives, instead of just abandoning them. Maybe it was the fact that I spent the last 15 minutes or so of that movie just in heaving, ugly, sobs, but I never noticed that the only character really given a conclusion to their story arc was Andy. But the Toy Story series was never really about Andy; it was always in one way or another about Woody.

The series started with a neurotic toy consumed with anxiety that he was no longer a child’s favorite. As of about nine years ago, it ended with that neurotic toy learning to let go — before immediately going right back to an unhealthily dependent relationship on another child. If it were an allegory for parenthood and empty nest syndrome, it seemed to say that the only cure for feeling sad your children are leaving for college is to have another kid ASAP.

Which might help explain why I could never find fault with Toy Story 3, but I still never felt like I loved it and never had much desire to see it again. (I honestly can’t remember if I ever saw it that second time). The ending is spectacularly, relentlessly, emotional, but I don’t think it felt cathartic. And I wonder if that could be subconsciously because it just leaves its characters locked for eternity in a nightmarish purgatory of sublimating their own desires out of fear of abandonment from a callous child who will inevitably abandon them.

I’m only exaggerating a little. The premise of the franchise is that toys are imbued with life when children play with them, but to some extent, Pixar has spent decades treating them less like characters who’ve come to life, and more like inanimate objects they can pull out of storage every few years to put together into a new sequence of emotional moments.

The “When She Loved Me” song in Toy Story 2 was the emotional core of the movie, but after getting used to reinforce Woody’s anxiety in the third movie, and then used as a plot device in Toy Story of Terror, it soon started to feel like “chronic fear of abandonment” is the only aspect of Jessie’s character. By the fourth movie, it’s become full-on PTSD, as Jessie starts to hyperventilate at the thought of being left in a closet. At the time, it seemed weirdly out of place in tone. (And for all I know, it could be the result of multiple rewrites of that scene from different creative teams). But when put in the context of the rest of the movie, it feels like an attempt to take all the more sinister ideas of the franchise and treat them as aspects of real characters instead of just gags.

I liked that Toy Story 4 took a lot of the same core components of the last two movies, and then started asking new questions about them. Do we have to see our villains humiliated and/or tortured, or can we get an even more satisfying resolution by acknowledging that our villains are motivated by the exact same anxieties as our main characters? Has Woody been turned into Pixar’s Mickey Mouse, i.e. stripped of the flaws and neuroses that made him an actual character, and turned into just a blandly wholesome protagonist for whatever random story they decide to tell next? At what point have we invested enough into these toy characters that they have stories of their own? (And also, are ventriloquist dummies “toys?” And can they talk without a person controlling them?)

One of the most memorable moments in the first movie is Woody asserting to Buzz, “You are a toy. A child’s plaything.” It’s satisfying to see the series saying now, after so many years, that it’s not as simple as that. We can define ourselves instead of letting other people tell us what we are.

Which leads into the other part of my old post about Toy Story 3, where I agree-but-with-significant-caveats:

That’s the main reason I don’t see any merit in the common complaint that Pixar movies haven’t had female lead characters — Pixar doesn’t need to be making movies to order or to fill some sort of quota; they need to keep making movies that feel honest.

It’s gross that I inadvertently used the same language that mens rights activists and other bigots often do, and especially awkward considering the issues that the studio has gone through, but I have to say I haven’t changed my mind since 2009. That’s definitely not to say I’m against more diverse representation and better roles for female characters, because that would be trivially stupid. But at the time, the arguments about representation in Toy Story 3 were frustratingly reductive and simplistic. Reviews at the time were reducing it to a zero-sum situation, in which it was impossible to call for more women’s voices without faulting Toy Story 3 for not being given a female protagonist. Instead of actually calling for diversity, they were holding one movie as somehow responsible for decades of male-dominated stories. Like so many things on the internet, it was in danger of devolving into self-parody, like The Onion’s “Chinese Laundry Owner Blasted for Reinforcing Negative Ethnic Stereotypes.”

Toy Story 4 just feels more inclusive, and it does so organically, whether it was actually organic behind the scenes or not. And the character of Bo Peep is so well developed and well handled (and excellently voiced!) that it puts the question to rest more effectively than a billion different think pieces could. They took a character who existed pretty much solely for Woody to have a girlfriend, and turned her into not just a bad-ass but the emotional core of this entire film (if not the entire series)! Plus at Disneyland last weekend, I saw they were selling toy versions of Bo Peep’s staff, so everybody’s happy (apart from the chuckleheads who get overly invested in the gender of cartoon characters of toys).

More diverse casts and more diverse creative teams make for more interesting characters; it’s just that simple. And I like that Pixar chose to show instead of tell. What makes it especially satisfying is that it’s not just an obvious transformation from “hand-wavingly feminine” character to “infallible bad-ass,” either. The message, both implicit and explicit, is that you can be whatever you want to be.

And the feeling of inclusiveness goes beyond gender. I’ve loved most of the Pixar movies, but even among my favorites there’s been something “othering” about them. They’re “family movies” in the literal sense, which is that they’re pretty adamant about the importance of having a particular type of family. Underneath every one there seems to be a voice whispering from Emeryville, saying this isn’t really for you, because you don’t have children. Even when they show non-traditional families, it seems as if the universe of the story aligns to provide surrogates for all the traditional roles, so they can feel “proper” again by the time the movie concludes. I’m skeptical that it’s at all intentional, but it still feels like I’m not their target audience and never will be.

For the first time, Toy Story 4 seems to present a world in which two-heterosexual-parent, one-child families exist, and they’re not they only option available. You can be single if you want. You can choose to have a kid or not. You get to decide whether you’re trash or not. The movie doesn’t put a value judgment on anything except letting other people define what’s right for you.

It’s kind of a subtle thing, but it was just so nice to feel like I wasn’t just enjoying someone else’s movie, but I was actually being rewarded with a movie that I loved and was made big enough to include me. And it was nice to see Woody plucked out of limbo, turned into a real live character, and rewarded with an actual conclusion to a genuine story arc that leaves him in a different place than where he started.