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.

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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.

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 3, Episode 20) – Divide

With 19 episodes under season 3’s belt, here we are, at the second-to-last episode, and the first of a two-part story, that seeks to make this season go out with a bang.

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– Divide –

At the end of the last episode, Queen Moon was severely injured, and disappeared through a multi-colored portal. With Moon gone, Star has now been made the ‘acting queen’ of Mewni, but finds it frustrating how everyone is looking to her for decisions.

With Meteora still advancing on the kingdom, Marco and Star’s friends try to slow her down, while Star attempts to try and find out what happened to her mom.

At the beginning of the episode, the writers try to balance drama and humor, as Star finds out that much of the Kingdom’s decision-making, was done by her mother…and without Queen Moon, most people are unable to think for themselves (making me wonder what happened with previous ruling parties).

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While the stupidity of several of the royal personnel is a bit eye-rolling, it was intriguing to see Star reacting almost identically to her Mom in the earlier Season 3 story, Moon the Undaunted. Just like young Moon, Star is thrust into an awkward position of power, one that she finds herself struggling to work through.

It is also notable how Star is unwilling to take the advice of Eclipsa (who is partially to blame for Moon’s disappearance), or the Magic High Commission (who were found guilty of tampering with Mewni’s past history texts some time ago!). This signals a move that some would probably see as being foolhardy, but it seems that Star doesn’t feel like she can trust ‘the old ways’ of doing things. Much of this season has shown her trying to make changes to a broken ruling system, and this feels like another small step forward.

Most of Star’s time in this episode, is spent outside of the castle in the unnamed, paradise-like place she entered into in the earlier story, called Deep Dive. There is still the danger that Star could be sidetracked in her quest to find her mom, and the writers come up with a neat idea, on trying to keep her mind on her plan.

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On the other end of the ‘divide,’ we have Marco staying behind on Mewni, trying to work on slowing down Meteora. This leads to the grouping of a number of characters we’ve seen him interact with over the season, as he attempts to put several plans into action.

While there is plenty that is good about the episode, Divide feels like it focuses a bit too much on gags in some areas,  almost like in splitting the final story for the season in two, the writers had to ‘pad it out’ in a number of places.

One highlight is when we see Star and Marco talking over things before everyone splits off into their separate quests. Plus, we get to see how their fighting skills have improved over the last season. It’s probably one of the most productive conversations Star has in the episode.

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Best line from episode (said by Marco Diaz): “No Star, my abs are not back.”

Final Grade: B

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Tom Lucitor): “Oh, well I’ll just take the bait here. Where did you get that sword, Marco?”

When watching Divide, I couldn’t help but feel that many of it’s events, were largely just to set-up the events of the next episode. However, it does have some memorable moments.

Much like seeing Moon Butterfly in her younger days, we get to see Star trying to deal with being thrust into the spotlight as an ‘active queen.’ Her working through a number of emotions, helped make this story pretty enjoyable, though I was hoping for a little more drama during the second part of the episode for her.

Marco’s attempts to stop Meteora, helped give the episode some action, and prove just how ruthless Eclipsa’s daughter is (using magic-draining powers that may remind some of what Toffee was capable of in season 2).

Overall, if the episode had felt a little more ‘complete,’ I probably would have given it a higher rating. Still, it did prove to be entertaining.

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And then…there was one left.

Come back soon, when I review the final episode of Star vs the Forces of Evil’s third season: Conquer.

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 3, Episode 19) – Bam Ui Pati! / Tough Love

The last episode of Star vs the Forces of Evil gave us some rather startling revelations, making it one of the most enjoyable episodes this season.

Episode 19 of the third season, manages to tie into that episode, in several ways.

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– Bam Ui Pati! –

Following events from the episode 18 story Skooled, Ponyhead has locked herself in her room, watching Korean soap operas. Star is contacted by a few of Ponyhead’s sisters to help break her out of her lethargy, but things may be more complex than they seem.

By now, most of the series’ fans are probably used to things going a little weird at times. In this case, Ponyhead’s story is tied into her watching the Korean soap opera, Bam Ui Pati (aka Party of the Night), in which a famous singer is stricken with a horrible illness, that may affect her life…forever.

I could almost see this story as being the yang to the ying that was the earlier Season 3 story, Scent of a Hoodie. While Ponyhead worked to try and bring Star out of her crazed lethargy there, Star almost seems to be returning the favor here. However, that storyline was a bit more entertaining in it’s main character going through some crazy stuff.

For this story, the writers try to use the soap opera to mirror Ponyhead’s ‘journey,’ as she tries to come to grips with what happened to her, and move on. It sounds like a good concept, but the execution of it feels disjointed, as the story tried to throw all sorts of obstacles in the way of Ponyhead trying to watch her show.

It was a little surprising to see several of Ponyhead’s sisters again, though it didn’t feel like they added very much to the story. Personally, I was more enamored with the return of Ponyhead’s ex-boyfriend (last seen in the Demoncism episode), whose salesperson persona, provided some much-needed comic relief at times.

Overall, this felt like ‘filler.’ It ties into events from a previous story, and tries to push us forward…but it’s attempts to be a little kooky with how it does that, just didn’t do it for me.

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Best line from episode (said by Star Butterfly): “Oh, sorry, Cloudy was a lot further down than I thought he was.”

Final Grade: C+

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– Tough Love –

After finding out information about her past in the last episode, Meteora (formerly Ms Heinous) returns to Mewni, intent on claiming the royal throne. Unknown to her, Queen Moon and Eclipsa (Meteora’s mother), are hot on her trail.

Seeing Moon and Eclipsa play off each other over season 3, has led to some very entertaining moments for me. It feels like as time has gone on, Moon’s stance on the former queen of Mewni has softened a bit, though Eclipsa still tries to assert herself in some situations, irking the current queen.

Much of the story is based around the two women trying to track down Meteora, while also encountering the angered denizens of Rich Pigeon’s kingdom, and an angry mob of villagers. The encounters are good for quick bits of comedy, but it definitely feels like the writers missed the opportunity to make this a stronger, more emotional storyline, by shortening these scenes a bit more.

The meeting between Meteora and her mother sadly, is something I felt would be a bit stronger. It does have it’s moments, though it does seem that Meteora may also have become mentally unstable from years of repressing herself at St Olga’s. It’s also notable that Meteora uses green ‘dark magic,’ which we haven’t seen used since Toffee had overtaken Ludo at the end of last season.

It is in the last few minutes, that the story gets really eye-opening. However, some shocking events happen so quickly, that by the time the credits roll, your brain is still trying to process what you just saw.

A good episode for sure, but one that I definitely feel, could have been great if it focused more on the dramatic tension at the end.

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Best line from episode (said by Eclipsa): “Well, some terrible, terrible people, locked me up in a dingy old crystal, deep down in a dark dungeon. They were a rather backwards, maladjusted people, especially that old queen.”

Final Grade: B

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Happy Villager, in Tough Love): “She gave me this neat hat…I like it.”)

Well, that was an episode that was okay, but definitely could have been better.

Bam Ui Pati‘s storyline could have held up a bit stronger in it’s storyline of Ponyhead coping with a crisis, but it’s attempts to parallel the soap opera she was watching, felt like a fun concept that just didn’t work for me.

Tough Love brings us the encounter we’ve been waiting for, between Meteora, her mother, and Queen Moon. The opening comedy beats of the story somewhat take away from the more interesting and serious bits, and while the story does have some serious moments, it feels like a much stronger story could have surfaced here.

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And thus, the last 2-story episode of season 3 is over.

The final two episodes of this season, will be full 22-minute stories, with some rather ominous titles. The next episode is titled Divide, and the final season’s episode…will be titled, Conquer.

I’ll be reviewing each of the episodes separately, so see you back here soon, when we take a look at episode 21: Divide.

Movie Review: Ready Player One

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language

While I had known about Ernie Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One for awhile, it wasn’t until hearing the author’s concept for the book, did I become intrigued: what if Willy Wonka was a video game designer, and he held his Golden Ticket Contest, inside his greatest video game creation?

That led me to seek out the book, and, upon hearing that Steven Spielberg was going to be adapting it, I was pretty much onboard for the bearded one’s latest film.

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In the year 2045, much of the world is in economic ruin. To combat their dreary existences, many people have escaped into the lifelike-yet-fanciful virtual world called The Oasis. Created by legendary gamemaker James Haliday (Mark Rylance), the late genius secretly created a contest within his borderless world…a contest that not only promises massive wealth, but total control of his greatest creation!

The film follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who along with his friends, attempts to solve the riddles and puzzles Haliday left behind.

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Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan)

However, the evil conglomerate known as IOI (Innovative Online Industries), is hoping to turn the free-to-roam world into a pay-to-play empire. Led by the business-minded Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the company will do everything it can, to win.

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While several people I know were fully ensconced in the world that Ernie Cline had written, I will admit his novel didn’t fully grab my attention. With the film’s screenplay however, there has definitely been some fine-tuning. With help from screenwriter Zak Penn (who wrote the story for Last Action Hero), there is a small toning down regarding the video game references, and a bit more given over to the worlds of motion pictures.

For much of the film, Wade Watts (and his avatar known as Parzival), is our guide to this future world. Most of his friends exist within the world of the Oasis, with Wade not really knowing much about them beyond their avatars. I did like the camaraderie developed between Wade and his friend Aech (Lena Waithe), but when it came to Wade ‘crushing’ on a girl named Artemis (Olivia Cooke), the writing felt a bit ‘forced.’

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Artemis (Olivia Cooke)

Unlike her novel’s counterpart, the character of Artemis is given over to being more of a ‘person’ here, and less of a ‘prize.’ Both her human counterpart and avatar are given more time and purpose in helping move the story along, but in regards to fully making her and Wade into a couple, it just didn’t work for me (then again, this could have been Spielberg channeling the ‘meet cute’ romances of 80’s films).

I’ve often believed that when it comes to Spielberg choosing his projects, he does so based on certain world events. Current events definitely feel like the world of 2045 in RP1 is possible: one in which high unemployment and crippling debt are the norm, and the majority of transactions are made digitally, with drones making all of our deliveries.

There are also some topics regarding the ‘disconnect’ many feel even when ‘connected’ through digital means, as well as how protecting your identity can be detrimental to your well-being.

Much like his work with The BFG, Spielberg’s work on RP1 ping-pongs between a virtual world, and a real one. CG character believability has been improving over the years, and for much of the film, I was surprised how focused I was on the motion-captured characters, and stopped looking for ‘bugs in the system.’

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L to R: Sho (Philip Zao), Aech (Lena Waithe), Parzival (Tye Sheridan),  The Caretaker, Artemis (Olivia Cooke), Daito (Win Morisaki)

Of course, one thing that many will be looking forward to, will be the character-heavy scenes within the Oasis. While some references are called out, the film fortunately doesn’t stop for every single little moment, treating most of the licensed cameos, in the same way Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph did. I will admit that I did have some ‘fanboy’ moments watching the film, but knew I had to judge the film on it’s merits, and not just on stuff I recognized.

Story-wise, the film thrusts us into it’s world pretty quickly, before allowing us some time to catch our breath in the second act. It feels like the story starts getting unwieldly in it’s third act, as Spielberg is almost in a mad dash to keep the action going, and resolve a number of plot threads. He almost ends up pulling a Return of the King with all that is going on, which made me pine for the simplicity (and editing) of a George Lucas Star Wars film ending.

While I was also very excited to hear that composer Alan Silvestri was on board, I felt his contributions to the film were sadly overshadowed too often by the 80’s soundtrack that was thrown at us. Even with the full force of the IMAX sound system around me during my screening, the only time Silvestri’s music really stuck out for me, was (sadly) during the closing credits.

Ready Player One overall, feels like it has a hard time finding it’s equilibrium. Spielberg struggles to bring out more of the novel’s cautionary vision of the future to viewers, but ends up sacrificing some of that message in favor of Wade and his friends, striving to ‘save the world’ in their own way.

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Even so, I do wonder if the struggle of the young people in the film, fighting ‘a war for control of the future,’ may in some way inspire the young people in our own reality, who are struggling against forces that seem insurmountable as well.

Final Grade: B

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