Retro Recaps: Dinosaurs (Season 4, Episode 2) – Earl, Don’t Be a Hero

A television sitcom, about a family of dinosaurs

That was the idea that Jim Henson (creator of The Muppets) pitched for a TV series in the late 80’s. Some thought he was nuts at first, but eventually, the show got a green-light from ABC Television, and Dinosaurs was born.

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From 1991-1994, the show chronicled the lives of the Sinclair family, who lived in Pangaea. Unlike traiditional interpretations of the massive creatures, the show (with the help of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) would see dinosaurs living in a suburban environment, often delving into problems that modern humans could relate to.

One of the main members of the show was Earl Sinclair. A dopey father-figure, this megalosaurus would attempt to provide for his family, often having his ego get in the way, and quite often, end up being berated by his youngest child, Baby Sinclair.

Some of the time, Earl strove to be a good father figure, and in the second episode of the show’s fourth season, he got an unlikely assist in trying to earn his toddler’s respect.

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Earl returns home with exciting news: he’s been promoted to Toxic Waste Supervisor at the WESAYSO Corporation!

Unfortunately, his teenage kids Robbie and Charlene show little interest in his promotion. Earl attempts to get some sympathy from Baby Sinclair, but all the little guy wants to do is watch Captain Action Figure and his Paramilitary Pals, claiming the (well-marketed) captain is his hero.

“And what does he got that I don’t?” asks Earl.

“A TV Show!” retorts the baby.

The next day Earl gets to work as the new Toxic Waste Supervisor…by dumping a number of the WESAYSO Corporation’s toxic waste into a public lake!

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Earl also discusses with his co-worker Roy, how he’s created an ostentatious hat to make the baby realize how important the new job is.

“I don’t know pally-boy,” says Roy, “Seems to me, the love and respect of your child is cheapened somehow, if it’s based entirely upon the hat.”

Thinking Roy has a point, Earl tosses the hat into the lake.

“But, who am I to say?” rethinks Roy. “I don’t have any children.”

This causes Earl to dive into the (now-toxic) lake to retrieve the hat. However, once he comes out, he’s glowing green! the color fades away, but when Earl stretches towards the sky, he suddenly starts flying!

Once he comes back down to Earth, Roy tells Earl that the toxic waste must have given him superpowers. They check for additional powers, and find that Earl also has heat vision, and can guess someone’s weight!

Roy tells Earl that he should use his powers to become a superhero, and Earl becomes ecstatic, figuring that the baby will really like him now that he has superpowers. However, Roy explains that Earl can’t do that. Like a good superhero, he has to protect his secret identity, for the safety and well-being of his family.

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Earl then adopts the moniker of Captain Impressive, and with a snazzy superhero suit, Earl flies all over Pangaea, foiling bank robberies, redirecting comets, and much more!

Pretty soon, the Sinclair family is enthralled by the superhero’s exploits that they see on TV news. One of the bigger upsides for Earl, is the baby now likes Captain Impressive more than Captain Action Figure.

Earl also hasn’t bathed since he fell into the toxic lake, and even though his wife questions his peculiar odor, Roy cautions him that a shower will surely wash away the chemicals that give him his powers.

Unfortunately, Earl’s boss Mr Richfield sees him use his heat vision during lunch, and calls Earl into his office. Richfield manages to trick Earl into revealing his superhero identity, and praises his superpowers.

“They could be very useful to a sinister, multi-national conglomerate such as this,” notes Richfield.

Earl claims that he won’t use his powers to help evil, but Richfield claims that he has no choice…because he’s contractually obligated to do so! Apparently, in the WESAYSO contract Earl signed long ago, if a dinosaur who works for the company ever obtains superpowers, they must use those powers for whatever the company wants! Richfield still allows Earl to stop crime and all, but only once he has completed his obligations to the company…such as opening WESAYSO shopping centers, and advertising WESAYSO brand products.

This shift in his agenda causes the majority of the Sinclair family to consider Captain Impressive as ‘a sell-out,’ but the baby is still impressed by the superhero.

This blind hero-worship comes into play when Richfield tells Earl, that the company has plans for a TV show called The Captain Impressive Action Fun Hour. Earl is at first excited, feeling he can teach kids plenty of important life-lessons, but his boss quickly tells him that the show is only to get the kids to convince their parents to buy over-priced (and often unsafe) merchandise! Some examples include a Captain Impressive doll that has a knife inside it, pajamas made out of newspaper, and even a trachea plug!

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Earl attempts to use sound logic against big-business, but Richfield orders him to get to the TV station. Once there, Earl finds that the show is actually just an hour-long program on a home-shopping channel.

As the program goes on, Earl is surprised when Baby Sinclair calls, wanting to purchase a Captain Impressive trachea plug! When Earl hears the baby say he wants to buy the item because it has his face on it, Early finally has enough, and takes off his mask (shocking his family at home)!

Earl attempts to talk to the viewers about WESAYSO’s money-grubbing ways, but he is shoved aside, and relieved of his Captain Impressive costume.

Returning home, Earl finally showers, and washes off the toxic waste, nullifying his powers and superhero career.

He also gives the baby one of the Captain Impressive dolls (minus the dangerous knife inside it). However, the baby claims that he doesn’t like Captain Impressive anymore, since he’s got no superpowers.

“Well I’ll let you know a little secret,” says Earl. “If you take off the cape, and the mask and the funny costume, sometimes you fine a real hero underneath.”

“Looks like you,” says baby, looking at the costume-less figure.

“That’s the point,” continues Earl.” You see, Daddy’s are heroes too, and Mommies. We may not have heat vision, but we go to back-breaking, mind-numbing jobs so you can grow up comfortably and, have some nice things in your life. It may not be flashy, but it’s real.”

When the baby just demands Earl ‘guess his weight,’ he walks away, feeling like he’s wasted his time.

However, a few moments later, he hears the baby, and sees him playing with the action figure!

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“I’m Captain Daddy,” proclaims the baby. “Going to work…a mind-numbing job! Honey, I’m home!”

As the baby laughs, Early smiles, happy that he did get through to his son.

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And that was Earl, Don’t Be A Hero.

When it comes to some shows, it feels like the topic of superheroes eventually comes up, and Dinosaurs got to check that off their bingo card.

There also is some fun comedy with the Captain Action Figure TV show in the beginning, where the show tries to convince the kids at home, to guilt-trip their parents into buying merchandise.

This episode also shows how Earl is definitely not a perfect character, but still has some positive attributes (given the appropriate script). He quickly accepts that he has to do his job and dump toxic waste in a public lake, but also shows that he doesn’t wish to lead his young son astray with the wrong life-lessons (even if the baby can be annoying at times).

The show also seems to have some fun with the secret identity bit. Given that Captain Impressive and Earl have the same body-type, the family never puts two-and-two together, until he removes his mask.

There actually is a fun little bit of trivia regarding the action figure of Captain Impressive. It’s sculpt may not look like the Earl we know, but once upon a time, it was the original design for him. However, they found the original design looked a little too ‘stern.’ The features were softened, and Earl became more of the dopey Dad we see in the show.

For me, the highlight of the episode is it’s ending, where Earl tells the baby how parents are often the ‘unsung heroes’ of their families. Almost every episode of Dinosaurs usually has an interesting message to take away, and I found this was one that I feel is rarely ever touched upon.

While probably not one of the series’ best episodes, I did like what it did with it’s themes of being a parent, as well as trying to be a responsible superhero, in the face of the evils of the world (like greedy corporations).

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Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language

When it comes to the world of children’s television programming, probably noone handled it in such a unique way, as Fred Rogers.

Originally intent on becoming a priest, his career path swung in an unlikely direction, when he first saw what was being offered as children’s programming in the early 1950’s. Pies in the face and shows that seemed to care more about selling children products, made Fred want to use the medium in a way to help children.

MrRogers-1This led him to start what became known as a staple of The Public Broadcasting System (aka PBS), for almost thirty-five years. Mr Roger’s Neighborhood was a show where Fred could talk to children in a simple environment, have them experience new things, and send them to the Land of Make-Believe via his toy trolley car. On his show, he embodied the figure of a good neighbor, the kind that would not judge, but want to talk to you, and get to know more about who you were.

With his latest film, director Morgan Neville gives us more information on a man whom many of us have only known from our youthful watchings.

Rather than choose to have a narrator guide us through the film, Fred’s life is chronicled through remembrances with family, friends, and acquaintances. It is through their observations and memories, that the film is buoyed onward with Rogers’ ‘spirit.’ For those expecting there to be a lot of ‘dirt’ to dish out, you will be disappointed. Pretty much the kind of man you saw on your television screen, was very much what Mr Rogers was like off-camera.

My memories of Rogers’ show were very faint, and what the film revealed were things I had never realized. Notable was how Fred would take real-world problems, and try to deal with them in the settings of his show. Covering topics like assassination and even divorce, he would try to help children (and in some cases adults), make sense out of things.

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Daniel Striped Tiger, with Fred Rogers

Of course, he wasn’t without his own problems. From being ill as a child to being a chubby kid in his early teens, he seemed to hold onto these memories, and try to channel them into something that could help others. Some of the things he experienced, are presented to us in animated form, with the puppet of Daniel the Striped Tiger from the Land of Make Believe, standing in for Fred. In fact, some claim that Daniel was a stand-in on the show, for how Fred felt about certain things.

On his show, he seemed to want to show us a world where kids could depend on grown-ups to help them, and to give them the attention and love they needed. In the times we are in now, such things feel like a ‘myth’ from long ago. Watching Fred talk strongly about his beliefs in how love and acceptance are keys to helping those in the world, will definitely make many people wish Mr Rogers was still with us today. One could imagine him sitting down by his staircase, and trying to help relieve people of the numerous fears that have taken hold of our daily lives…and those knowing that the words coming out of this man’s mouth, were genuine, heartfelt, and honest.

Released amid a cacophony of summer films, Won’t You Be My Neighbor feels like the ‘pleasant’ alternative that not only entertains, but also educates. I do agree with one headline, that it is definitely ‘the film we need right now.’

I think for many, it will act as a ‘salve for the soul.’ This is a film that will surely make some sad to realize how long we have been without Mr Rogers, but maybe, learn a few new things about him, and take away some new lessons to apply to our world, once the lights come up in the theater.

“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it” – Fred Rogers

Final Grade: A-

Book Review: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction

Over the last 30 years, writer/director James Cameron has made a number of memorable, and successful films.

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Filmmaker James Cameron.

While he has delved into themes of espionage (True Lies) and period romance (Titanic), the bulk of his work takes place within the genre known as science fiction. Some of these films include The Terminator, The Abyss, and Avatar.

Recently, Cameron partnered with the television channel AMC, to create the six-part original series, AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. For the show, Cameron’s goal was to sit down with six of the biggest names in science fiction, and get their perspectives on the importance, and the impact of the genre.

These guests include directors Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.), George Lucas (THX-1138, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar), Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water), Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who portrayed the Terminator in Cameron’s film series).

Insight Editions’ book reproduces Cameron’s interviews in full, and offers several topical summaries by a number of people familiar with science fiction. These topics include dark futures, artificial intelligence, time-travel, and much more.

When I saw the interview lineup, I did question the inclusion of Schwarzenegger (given that Arnold has never directed a science fiction film). However, Cameron seems to have also included himself, as an unofficial interviewee within the book.

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James Cameron’s painted concept of the Terminator, once Schwarzenegger was cast for the role.

One of his cohorts named Randall Frakes (who has worked with him on a number of projects), acts as the interviewer for Jim’s views on science fiction. Over the years, I’ve often heard the story of how Cameron was inspired by Star Wars, quit his job as a truck driver, and got into film profuction. With the Frakes/Cameron interview, it was definitely an eye-opening look into what makes Cameron tick regarding science fiction, as well as some of the decisions he makes regarding his films.

It should be noted that when Cameron gets around to interviewing his guests, he chooses to mainly discuss the science fiction topics their work tends to focus on. For example, you won’t find Guillermo Del Toro expounding on time-travel, but you will get his views on monsters in science fiction (plus, he talks about the time he and a friend encountered a UFO!).

If you’ve studied any of the directors that Cameron interviews, you’re probably going to find some overlap with the information they provide. I was already well-versed in Spielberg’s handling of the late Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), and most of what he talks about during his interview, I was well aware of.

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Director George Lucas (left), explains his thought processes to James Cameron (right).

Of all the interviews, I felt that George Lucas’ discussion with Cameron came across as a bit ‘detached’ at times. One can sense Cameron wanting to possibly steer the conversation a little deeper towards Star Wars, but George doesn’t seem that interested in dissecting something he’s probably already discussed dozens of times before. Of interest to me, was his expounding a bit deeper into his feelings about inter-connectivity and micro-bacteria, which seemed to tie into that most loathed of prequel subjects: midichlorians. George also comes across as more of a realist, than his more optimistic friend, Steven.

While Spielberg and Lucas were two of the guys I was very familiar with, it was the likes of Nolan, Scott, and Del Toro whom I had little knowledge of.

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Filmmaker Ridley Scott.

Of the three, it is Ridley Scott who is the ‘old master’ of science fiction here, and one can almost feel Cameron acting like an excited fan, getting to interview a man after his own heart.

In recent years, Scott has made a comeback into science fiction with films like Prometheus and The Martian, which Cameron seems to have been heavily enamored with (he mentions it’s ‘science-fact’ premise to a number of his interviewees). Of course, the pendulum swings both ways, as Scott tells Cameron that Avatar inspired him to consider returning to the realms of science fiction.

The book also gets a teensy bit ‘political’ as it delves into some topics, such as how people perceive science in this day-and-age. I was surprised during one interview where Cameron seemed to ‘hijack’ the conversation, and expound a bit on his own views and research about artificial intelligence. While he didn’t feel that his Terminator films were some form of self-fulfilling prophecy, he does tell about an experience regarding how some people may be looking to misuse A.I., the way people ended up making a mess of things with atomic energy.

Along with a number of visuals from science fiction films (via still-frames and posters), the book is filled with a number of original art pieces created by Cameron. Most people are not aware that he is also an artist, and has been doing science fiction art for many years, whether for his own pleasure, or as concept pieces for films he has done.

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Concept art made by James Cameron, for his unmade science fiction short, Xenogenesis.

Most notable are a number of concept drawings and paintings done for an unmade short called Xenogenesis. It is fascinating to look at these, and see how Cameron utilized them in other films he’s done.

A prime example is this piece on the left. The giant robotic vehicle has elements that would be utilized for the tank-like Hunter-Killers in 1984’s The Terminator, while the female character doing battle with it in her own mechanical vehicle, seems eerily reminiscent of Ripley’s battle with the Alien Queen in his 1986 film sequel, Aliens.

For those expecting Cameron to mostly sit aside and let his guests speak, you may find yourselves disappointed. This isn’t someone from the entertainment section of a news program asking throwaway questions, but someone who is here to ask some very deep questions.

Readers may also grow a little tired, as Cameron tends to monopolize some conversations. This is most notable in his own interview with Frakes. It seems that Jim could go on-and-on with all the information he’s accumulated over the years.

Even so, James Cameron’s The Story of Science Fiction is a book I would highly recommend to those who are fans of Cameron, or any of the guests he speaks with. Even if you may know a lot about a few of those being interviewed, what you glean from reading about the additional guests and the science fiction genre in general, will surely be an eye-opener to many.

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ 10 Years Later

Inspired by the Saturday Matinee Serials like Flash Gordon and Commando Cody that he saw as a boy, George Lucas would combine his memories of those shows with mythology and “the hero’s journey,” to create one of the most pop-culturally loved (and loathed) space-adventure series of all time.

Though not much of a storyteller, George was largely a man of ideas, and on a Hawaiian beach with Steven Spielberg in 1977, he shared another serial-inspired idea with his famous friend.

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L to R: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

While Steven had been trying to get the family of Albert Broccoli to allow him to direct a James Bond film, George claimed he had an idea that was “better than Bond.”

Lucas’ concept of an archaeologist/professor intrigued Steven, and the two directors made a pact to do a trilogy of films around the character.

With Harrison Ford cast as the lead, Indiana Jones made his whip-cracking debut in 1981 in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and quickly became a worldwide hit. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom followed in 1984, and while a much darker film than it’s predecessor, it still turned a profit. Five years later, the trilogy was completed, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, even though he had created an entertaining action-film trilogy, the public wanted more. Following the release of Crusade, Steven would often be asked, “when are you making another Indiana Jones movie?”

The same was asked of Harrison Ford and George Lucas, and after a reunion with the cast and crew, almost everyone who had been involved seemed okay with doing another film…except Steven.

In a making-of excerpt, Spielberg explained that he was ‘the hold-out,’ and felt the scene of the characters riding off into the sunset at the end of Last Crusade, was a fitting closure to Dr Jones’ story on film.

In the end, Steven was coaxed along by his friends, and after a decade or so of prep-work, Henry Jones Jr, would return to the big-screen.

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Aliens…why’d it have to be aliens?

In the early years of the 21st century, it was commonplace for many to bash filmmaker George Lucas as an out-of-touch creator. His Special Edition releases of The Star Wars Trilogy had brought fans back to theaters, but purists were angered at the changes he had made. The release of the Star Wars prequels from 1999-2005, further cemented fan-hatred, when Lucas seemed unwilling to fulfill the words of what Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke Skywalker, in A New Hope.

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L to R: Producers Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas, on the set of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

When it came to Indiana Jones, his adventures of fighting Nazi’s and trekking through strange-and-exotic locales in the first three films, fit into Lucas’ ode to the serials and the time period of the 1930’s. While Indy would weather the years and rarely change his ways, audiences would soon find that the world of the 50’s, was a very different place.

With the defeat of Hitler and the end of WWII, there was now a new war…a Cold War, and it involved the country of Russia. With Crystal Skull‘s 1957 time period, the film attempted to tie together real-life elements, such as the fear of Communism, the Red Scare, as well as the birth of The Atomic Age.

There was also a change in the adventure-film aesthetics. In Lucas’ mind, the concept of 1950’s B-movies, would influence Indy’s 1950’s adventure, much in the same way that the 1930’s serial had done with the first three films.

And, unlike artifacts that were a bit more tangible to the common person in western civilization (such as the Ark of the Covenant or The Holy Grail), the mcguffin for the new film, would be a bit more of an ‘abstract’ object, akin to the Sankara stones from Temple of Doom.

The new item, was a crystal skull, in the shape of an elongated alien’s head, that possessed psychic powers.

Upon hearing his friend’s idea to use aliens in the new film, Spielberg claimed that he was done with alien films, but Lucas was adamant that the new film would work with the alien mcguffin. Over the course of pre-production, it was the one storypoint that he would not compromise on: there would be aliens, end of story..or so he thought.

Finally, Lucas decided that instead of being aliens, the crystal-skulled creatures, would actually be ‘inter-dimensional beings,’ but with an alien appearance. And, while they would travel in flying saucers (another staple of 1950’s B-movies), they wouldn’t travel through space, but through time.

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Poster for Tokyo DisneySeas’ Temple of the Crystal Skull attraction.

Some may assume that Lucas’ concept of crystal skulls in the world of Indy was brand-new, but in fact, they had been thought of as a (non-alien-influenced) mcguffin for Dr Jones, as far back as the early 1990’s.

During that time, Lucas was producing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The television series showed Indy in various time periods of his life, and at one point, a script had been written where Indy went looking for a crystal skull. However, the series was cancelled, and the script was shelved…but the concept was still there.

The story concept would next find new life, when Tokyo Disneyseas (an expansion of Tokyo Disneyland), opened Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull in the fall of 2001.

While the ride’s innards would largely resemble Disneyland‘s Temple of the Forbidden Eye, the deity known as Mara would be replaced by a large, glowing crystal skull, that sent riders on a path to their doom.

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“You Can’t Go Home Again.”

I often recalled as a kid, the characters in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics, referencing this line. Taken from novelist Thomas Wolfe, I feel it best summarizes Lucas’ films where he returns to a familiar subject, after some time has passed.

When it comes the properties Lucas has been associated with over the years, people have very much been enamored with trying to recapture the magic they experienced, seeing those films in their youth. I recall how high the nostalgic factor was when Episode I debuted. Within hours of it’s release, it soon became apparent that George was not just going to shower his viewers with lots and lots of fanservice.

The same could be said when it came to Crystal Skull. However, I can’t help but feel there was a method to ‘the madness.’

Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like many were hoping to walk in and encounter Indiana, as if no time had passed. Lucas isn’t really a sentimental individual, and it feels like the story concept for the film, was to show that Jones had to move on, and find a new group of people to be with in his life.

When we first encounter him, Jones is under suspicion of being in league with the Communists after the Area 51 opening. This puts his teaching career in jeopardy, and, we learn that two of the people in his life have recently died: Marcus Brody, and his father, Henry Jones, Sr.

As the story goes on, we see a new family unit build up around him. From the realization that Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is his son, to the fact that Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) still harbors feelings for him, and his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt), needs his help.

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L to R: Indy (Harrison Ford), Harold Oxley (John Hurt), Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf)

By the end of the film, Indy has a new ‘family,’ and we see him marrying Marion.

Some may find this an odd ending, given the old formula of how Jones encountered a new female lead with every film, but that was a younger Indy, and he isn’t quite the ladies man now, as he was in the 1930’s.

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Parallels to Previous Storylines

While many gave Crystal Skull a hard time, screenwriter David Koepp still attempted to retain certain through-lines, that drew parallels to the three previous films.

In Raiders, there was talk about how Hitler was ‘obsessed with the occult,’ which tied into the search for the Ark of the Covenant. In Skull, there is word that Stalin is interested in ‘psychic warfare,’ which ties into the search for the crystal skulls, and attempts to find the lost city of Akator.

The villains also figure into parallels to previous films.

Ever since Raiders, there has come a moment where Indiana usually has to take on a ‘big baddie.’ Whether it be the German mechanic in Raiders, or Colonel Dovchenko in Skull, Indy usually finds himself fighting a losing battle, until he is saved by happenstance, and his foe meets a gruesome demise.

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There is also the continual plotpoint about how the lead villain is searching for something, and once they get their hands on it…it usually leads to their demise (as seen in the screencaps above).

Indiana himself is also open to story parallels.

Almost every film involves him trekking deep into a temple or a darkened cavern. In these situations, it is usually Indy who is the brave one, while he has to contend with a cohort who is freaked out by what they find inside. Whether it be Marion with the snakes in Raiders or Mutt encountering a scorpion in Skull, each darkened space can be counted on to contain some creepy-crawlies.

There also is Indy’s doubt over the ‘mystical nature’ of the artifacts he is looking for. In each film, he starts out just thinking the mysticism surrounding the items is nonsense. Of course, by the end of the film, he has usually changed his tune.

Also by the end of the film, he usually ends up going home empty-handed, but has quite a story to tell.

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Closing Thoughts, and Ideas on Indiana Jones 5

Much like The Phantom Menace, Crystal Skull would clean-up at the worldwide box-office, but it’s ‘imperfections’ have made it the black sheep of the series, causing many to disavow that it ever happened.

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Tweet from the Alamo Drafthouse, about their Crystal Skull celebration/not-celebration.

The most notable one, happened recently when the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced they were holding a 10th anniversary party for the opening of Crystal Skull…by showing only the first three films (the equivalent of throwing someone a birthday party, and not inviting the guest-of-honor!).

Looking around online in the past few days, it does appear there are those that feel the same as I do about the film: while not a great film, it is far from the trainwreck many claim it to be…but then again, internet fanbases loves to throw pity-parties.

One of the most ridiculous comments I heard following the release of Crystal Skull, was some fans ‘demanding’ that a fifth film be made to ‘apologize’ for the fourth one.

Rumors persisted that we might still get an Indy 5, notably in regards to The Walt Disney Company acquiring Lucasfilm in 2011 (whose purchase included ownership of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones licenses).

Now, word is that another film is coming to pass, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip…but, for the last time. Ford is now in his mid-70’s, and given Indy’s rough-and-tumble penchant for action and stunts, it makes sense this will be his last outing.

Scheduled for a July 2020 release, what the fifth installment will entail has not been revealed. Word is that Lucas declined to be involved with the film’s development, but David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay for Crystal Skull), is currently involved. However, it sounds like the new family Indy found for himself in his previous outing, may not return, and plunge the adventurer into a new area. With Shia Lebeouf having distanced himself from Spielberg, and John Hurt passing away last year, that just leaves Karen Allen, though there’s been no word if she’ll return as “Mrs Jones.”

Some of you might be wondering, where is is there left to explore? Well, given that the filmmakers like to have Indy associated with certain time frames, I have one possible locale: Vietnam.

Given Indy has already dealt with Germans and Russians, I could see him having been cleared of spy charges, and then ends up over in Vietnam in the mid-60’s. Given at the time a lot of young men were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, I could imagine one of them becoming disillusioned, attempting to defect, and following Dr Jones on an adventure into the surrounding jungle territories.

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An interpretation of The Monkey King, by artist Aaron Shepard.

Of course, the big question you may have is, what would Indy be looking for? Why, The Temple of the Monkey King.

Also known as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King is known in a number of different Asian cultures. Resembling a monkey and having supernatural powers, some of the tales revolving around the character, tie into the concepts that the creature or certain items around him, can grant one immortality.

A story involving the Monkey King had been considered for both The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, and given how previous unused story ideas have often been recycled into later stories, I could see this being a good candidate to pay homage to some of the past story ideas Lucas considered.

Of course, some might say it could be a story retread, given the Holy Grail was a relic that promised ‘eternal life,’ but if the story was probably tweaked a bit more beyond what I can imagine, it might make for a fitting end. Plus, given technological leaps these days, one can imagine a motion-captured rendition of the Monkey King, interacting with Indiana Jones (though whether the old-school fans would accept this, is hard to say).

Of course, what you’ve read in the last couple paragraphs is just me speculating. I don’t have actual inside information, just a few ideas of my own. Still, if the Monkey King idea is dusted off, I’ll be interested to see what is done.

Otherwise, we’ll see if Spielberg and Koepp may find another religion-based mcguffin for Jones to go after in a few years.

Journeys Through Life: Animating Life – The Art, Science and Wonder of Laika

When it comes to the art of stop-motion animation, the creation of what goes into it is quite fascinating, but there’s no denying that it is probably the most tedious and frustrating of animation techniques.

This isn’t just drawing figures on paper, or moving them in three-dimensional space within a computer. Stop-motion requires someone to physically alter a three-dimensional figure within a real-world space. Moving their limbs, rotating an eyeball, maybe even ruffling their hair or clothes. Plus, there’s the construction of miniature sets, let alone lighting them for the proper mood and tone. Action has to be shot on one frame of film at a time…and if you mess up, you have to start all over again!

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A Laika animator, setting up a scene from Paranorman.

Fortunately, there are those who have the tolerance and patience to pull off this feat, and a number of them are in the Portland, Oregon area.

Laika Studios was founded there in 2005, and ever since they released Coraline in February of 2009, I’ve made it a point to see each of their new stop-motion releases. Over the last decade, they have become my favorite North American animation studio, eclipsing my feelings for PIXAR (feels good to know we haven’t had a Coraline 2 yet!).

The studio’s mandate to forego test-screenings, let alone float the possibility that their films may scare ‘the little ones,’ always has me eager to see what chances they’ll take.

While I had seen several pieces of production material related to Paranorman when visiting Universal Studios Hollywood in 2013, word that Animating Laika would showcase items from all four of the studio’s films, made me eager to make my first visit to Portland, Oregon.

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When one enters the museum through it’s Park Avenue entrance, guests are immediately greeted by The Pink Palace, from the Other World in Coraline.

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Laika’s largest stop-motion puppet, is this 18-ft skeleton, from Kubo and the Two Strings.

Once you make it past the pink palace (it may take awhile!), you then enter the central hall of the museum…where you come face-to-face with the studio’s largest stop-motion puppet: an 18-foot skeleton, seen in Kubo and the Two Strings.

Right beside it, is an array of replacement faces, that the studio has used in it’s productions. It can be a little unnerving seeing them with no eyes, but the detail of the creations is definitely something to admire.

Upon entering the special exhibition gallery, I was a surprised by the amount of space, and how it was utilized.

In the past, I’ve seen exhibits related to topics such as Pixar Animation Studios, and Muppets creator Jim Henson. In those cases, the layout of the exhibits seemed to lead guests on a ‘journey.’ It was like being in a maze, guiding the viewer through twists and turns, and leading them to an eventual ‘conclusion.’

With Animating Life, such a layout did not seem to exist, almost like the studio and the museum, were coaxing guests to create their own path within the exhibit space.

Much like the darkened curtains that often segment off different work-areas at Laika Studios, much of the exhibit is cloaked in black cloth and in low-light, allowing the eye to drift to lit areas, showcasing various items from the studio.

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The Coraline Garden set, from 2009 feature film.

The mood lighting also contributes to highlighting the centerpiece of the exhibition: the massive ‘Coraline Garden’ set (see above), illuminated with all sorts of plants, and other items from the film’s nighttime sequence.

There are also little ‘pockets’ of props and scenes from the studio’s films, from the Babcock family’s home in Paranorman, to the lavish ballroom seen in The Boxtrolls.

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3D-printed pieces and color/texture-mapping, used to simulate Archibald Snatcher’s ‘cheese allergy’ scene, from The Boxtrolls.

In various areas, there are displays also dedicated to the miniature wardrobe of the film, the design process of what goes into creating the puppets, as well as what goes into creating effects-work within the films.

The section regarding the studio’s work with effects was definitely intriguing. There are some things on-screen that look like they just used computers to make some transformations. However, it was nice to see them show how the studio went the extra-mile, to 3D-print out things like Archibald Snatcher’s allergic reaction in Boxtrolls (see left), or Aggie’s emotional torment in Paranorman.

While there are pieces from each of Laika’s films, it feels like Kubo and the Two Strings gets the most attention regarding the various items on display. This could also be not only because it was the studio’s most recent film, but also because their craftsmanship and technology, took some major leaps during the production.

One area I was disappointed in while viewing the exhibit, was in regards to the film’s conceptual artwork. Exhibits like these make me excited to see original props and pre-production artwork on display, but for the majority of such pieces here, the studio had opted to only showcase reproductions of their artwork.

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Recreation of a test-animation set-up, to work on character animation.

Along with the main gallery, there are a few other areas in the museum, dedicated to the exhibit.

Part of the Asian Art gallery was converted into a makeshift theater for the exhibition. Several videos are run on a loop, showcasing the people who work at the studio, and showing what working for Laika entails.

There is also a small area off to the right of the main gallery, that houses a ‘hot set’ recreation (see upper-right). The little set-up, is meant to show how the animators prepare to ‘find the character’ they will be working on for a production. I’m sure some people were surprised to realize the kind of planning that goes into bringing a character to life.

The museum’s gift shop can also be exited through near the rear of the exhibit. While Laika doesn’t have the kind of merchandising reach that Disney does, there were still products such as Coraline handbags, exclusive T-shirts, and even a limited-edition poster by Mondo Posters, chronicling characters and situations from all of their films.

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As of this posting, the exhibit is in it’s final days, and will be closing on May 20th, 2018.

While I wish there had been a lot more to see regarding Laika’s productions, I still give the studio and the Portland Art Museum props for putting on this 6-month exhibition, and getting me to make my first visit to Oregon.

It’s definitely worth a trip to see the miniatures and props from the studio’s films, let alone understanding that this isn’t just ‘claymation,’ but a much deeper, and in-depth artistry that goes into bringing the studio’s films to life.

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 3, Episode 21) – Conquer

If one looks at the Kingdom of Mewni over the course of Star vs the Forces of Evil’s third season, it really feels like it’s non-maagical inhabitants have dealt with quite a lot.

Earlier this season, we watched as the kingdom was taken over by Ludo (under the mind-control of Toffee), with many of the inhabitants forced to accept his rule, or be levitated into the sky.

And now, just as some sense of normalcy might have been coming back to the kingdom, Eclipsa’s daughter Meteora has appeared. Destroying villages and draining mewmans and other creatures of their life essence, could this be the calm before a bigger storm rears it’s head?

Tied into the previous episode titled Divide, we now get it’s follow-up, and the final episode of the season: Conquer.

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– Conquer –

From the start of the episode, it feels like the first half of Conquer, is repeating several things that we saw during the last half of the previous episode. We have Star off in the Realm of Magic, trying to bring her mother home. Meanwhile, Marco, Tom, and several of their friends, are still attempting to slow down Meteora.

One surprise to me during the scenes with Marco and the others, was in regards to Tom trying to re-energize their group after the events at the end of the last episode. For much of this season, when it’s comes to charging into battle or standing up for the rights of monsters, Tom has been mostly silent…except on a few, special occasions.StarEp321-2

Several episodes ago, there was an altercation between Marco and Tom (when Tom forgot Star’s birthday), and I almost expected a major fight to break out between the two of them before the end of the season. However, this episode makes it seem like Tom has been working on getting over his inner, emotional turmoil. He also surprisingly, comes front-and-center for a bit of this episode, making me wish that the writers could have given him a bit more to do overall regarding these last two episodes.

At the beginning of the previous episode, there was a hint that Star is almost in the same position as her mother was, in the earlier Season 3 story, Moon the Undaunted.

Just like that story, Star is looking for answers on how to deal with a dire situation. Her mother was a very powerful and wise figure…and now, it seems that Star is on her own, having to make some very grown-up decisions. What has been most notable about the episodes Divide and Conquer, is that Star is unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the past (unlike her mother, she is not willing to utilize Eclipsa’s magic to try and stop Meteora).

What is also notable, is a subtle bit of character-growth that almost whizzes under the eye of the average viewer, when Star attempts to repeat something we saw her mother do earlier in the season. Unlike Moon however, Star lacks the proper knowledge to do what she did, and has to make a major decision…on her own.

That seems to ultimately be the takeaway from this storyline, that this is another turning point in Star Butterfly’s growth as a character, on her way to one day becoming Mewni’s next queen.

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Sadly, while I did enjoy the little moments of character growth with Star and Tom, they were used rather sparingly, in a story that seemed to meander quite a bit.

I often look forward to these 22-minute episodes, as they have the chance to tell a much more interesting story. The tone of these last few episodes however, has reminded me of the pacing of the episode Monster Bash. That story revealed some intriguing revelations about Meteora’s past, but wasted a large chunk of it’s time fighting Mina Loveberry, rather than focusing on the theme of ‘monsters’ that was part of that episode.

Speaking of monsters, this season looked like it was going to do some intriguing things with this sub-culture of Mewni, as Star attempted to try and bring more attention to them. I would have gladly welcomed a scene at the end, where Star’s faith in the goodness of monsters paid off. I kept waiting for Buff Frog and a number of ‘good monsters’ to suddenly appear near the end, and join in on the battle to stop Meteora…but that moment never came.

In terms of Eclipsa, she ends up having one of the more dramatic bits in the episode, and it almost saved the story. Sadly, her time here is fleeting, and what her actions in the last few minutes, keeps us on our toes as to what she may have in store for the next season, as the credits roll.

Overall, much of the episode’s layout and structure, just feels ‘okay.’ This is far from the emotional rollercoaster that the earlier season three episode Toffee was (and personally, Toffee is still one of the more solid episodes the series has given us!). There is definitely emotion to be had here, but the episode feels like it’s moving so fast through the more interesting stuff, that we don’t really get the chance to feel like it ‘impacts’ us in a proper way.

The episode also has a habit of showing us stuff that may or may not tie into things later on down the line. This is somewhat frustrating, because it just feels like more stuff we have to juggle in the air and ask ourselves: “did this-or-that mean anything in the grand scheme of this series, or is it just going to be something the writers will never address again?”

In the end, Conquer reminded me of a lot of stories I’ve seen so far this season: the kind of stories that tend to have a good idea and could definitely go deeper with the material, but feel like they just meander for 3/4 of their running time, before a lot of stuff happens in the last 4 minutes. At that point, the episode goes: “Whew…what’s gonna happen next, kiddies? Are you on pins and needles?”

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Best line from episode (sung by Star Butterfly): “Where’d the hair-y la-dy go? I-don’t-know, I-don’t know.”

Final Grade: B

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Meteora): “You’re a smart girl, figure it out.”

For the end of Season 3 of Star vs the Forces of Evil, both Divide and Conquer felt like a storyline that was stretched a little too thin over 2 episodes. It was like they meandered on a very long second act, while jettisoning some nice balance and time for the first and third acts.

The opening of Divide where we see Star dealing with being the kingdom’s ‘acting queen,’ let alone the end in Conquer where things could have gotten more dark and intense, just didn’t hold enough to make me as excited, or eager to write about these episodes as I had hoped.

 

At this point, I will surely delve into Season 4 when the time comes, but I am a little less intrigued by where it all may go (plus, while the show is confirmed for a fourth season, there’s been no word on a fifth).

So far this season, we’ve seen Star show a progressive mindset in trying to change her kingdom’s culture. The season had a number of great opportunities to really make some deep, meaningful episodes about monster/mewman connections, but often squandered them on cheap laughs. For a season that started out strong with it’s Battle for Mewni storyline, I was definitely let down a little in the storytelling department here.

There’s definitely more I want to say after seeing where three seasons has brought us, but I think that’s best suited for a separate Animated Dissection post. For now, I bid you adieu.

Book Review: The Art of Ready Player One

Over the years, there have been a number of ‘making-of/art-of’ books that have adorned my shelves. Along with the majority of them that concern animated features, there are several relating to the films of George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. To me, these three men are ‘the holy trinity’ of directors who influenced my childhood, and got me interested in the worlds of film, and visual effects.

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Steven Spielberg converses with actress Olivia Cooke, on Ready Player One’s motion-capture stage.

Recently, Spielberg has returned to the pop-culture limelight, with his adaptation of Ernie Cline’s bestselling novel, Ready Player One. The story of an economically-bereft world where it’s inhabitants escape into a virtual realm of unlimited possibilities (and pop-culture cameos aplenty!), had me interested in what ‘the bearded one’ could do with Cline’s source material…and once I saw an early screening of the film, I was eager for behind-the-scenes material.

Fortunately, my appetite was (somewhat) satiated, thanks to Insight Editions‘ recent release: The Art of Ready Player One.

While a number of “art of” books are in my collection, I have become a bit of a connoisseur regarding how some are put together. I’ve seen some that miss the chance to provide intriguing commentary on their subject matter (The Art of Inside Out), and some that feel like certain bits of production information were squeezed in at the end as an afterthought (The Art of Big Hero 6).

With The Art of Ready Player One, author Gina McIntyre manages to hit the sweet-spot, with her 156-page tome having a cohesive balance to the material contained within.

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Concept Art of the First Challenge, by Alex Jaeger

The layout of the book gives us some background on the film’s literary beginnings, before delving into it’s characters, and then the world that Spielberg brought to life. The format of the book makes it seem like a companion piece to the film, making me feel reading it should be done after a screening (or two) of the film.

It’s always fun for me to see how certain elements of a film’s story evolved, though in the case of this book, it feel like much of the storyline was already locked-in, with a surprising lack of ‘abandoned concepts’ or ‘alternate story ideas’ mentioned. Even the section regarding character concepts, is rather sparse when it comes to showing the evolution of character designs.

A fun area of conceptual ‘what-if,’ happens in a section devoted to the film’s ‘second challenge.’ This was one of my favorite parts of the film, and seeing several unused concepts and reading commentary by the production designer and effects supervisor, made it a highlight that I think other insightful readers will enjoy.

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An original avatar design, by Aaron Sims Creative.

Of course, some may eagerly pick up the book hoping it’ll spill the beans on all of the pop-culture ‘easter eggs’ in the film. While a few are shown in concept, the book is far from being a ‘cheat sheet’ for the casual viewer.

Even with the book managing to placate my desire for behind-the-scenes information, there were a few things that stuck out for me as “minor nitpicks.”

One of the rather unusual things that the book’s text does, is repeat certain items several times. This struck me after reading the foreword and introduction pieces by Spielberg and Cline, only to find some of their remarks repeated in different interview context a few pages later.

There was also a rather unusual bit of labeling, where when identifying various images, the author almost seems to ‘gush’ about extra details in them. One example is an image of the character of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), relaxing in his personal chair. One would expect a simple explanation, but the description gives the full name of the haptic chair, along with the style of VR visor he’s wearing. I can only assume that the author of the book was trying to have some fun, and add in some extra touches of Gunter-level knowledge for the images on hand (FYI: ‘Gunters’ are the names of the egg-hunters in the Oasis, who are usually avid fans of Oasis creator James Haliday-oh great, now I’m doing it!).

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Gothropolis World Concept, by Stephen Tappin

There are definitely some eye-opening bits of art that helped show the scope of the world of the Oasis, with several pages showing a number of conceptual worlds that never made it off the drawing board (like the image of Gothropolis, which I assume is a DC Universe-only playground).

Like a lot of Art of Books, I couldn’t help but imagine The Art of Ready Player One could have made due with another 25-50 pages. We get some prime examples of the haptic technology used to enter the Oasis, but I could also see a section detailing more about thoughts and concepts, regarding the dystopian future world of 2045. When looking over Spielberg’s filmography, the ‘real world’ in this film is a much more bleak future than the ones we’ve seen in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, or Minority Report. One can only wonder what Ernie Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn thought of this world, let alone how production designer Adam Stockhausen and his team came to their conclusions on bringing it to life.

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Construction drawing for the Stacks sets, by Stuart Rose.

In this day-and-age, material about the production of feature films has become decidedly small-scale, unlike ‘the days of wine-and-roses’ when laserdiscs and the first DVD’s seemed intent on giving us a glimpse behind the curtain that VHS tapes were incapable of doing. Studios today see more profit in selling films in a digital format, than revealing the tricks-of-the-trade that brought these productions to life through multi-disc boxsets.

The Art of Ready Player One serves as another example of Insight Editions‘ attempts to keep pushing quality-based book releases, that give film fans and cinephiles like myself, something to placate our curiosity. Even with my nitpicks about a few areas, I was still satisfied with the final product, though like a Gunter trying to unlock all of James Haliday’s secrets, I still hunger to learn more about Spielberg’s latest feature.