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Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements

Over the years, Walt Disney Feature Animation has created a number of films that have shown Asian/Pacific Islanders on the big-screen. Coming from a partial-Asian heritage, I remember being excited for the release of Mulan in 1998, and seeing the kind of Japanese influence that was brought to the studios’ 2014 release, Big Hero 6. For their latest release, Raya and the Last Dragon borrows from Southeast Asian culture, with an eye to telling an original story of its own.

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In the land of Kumandra, a sacred object known as the Dragons Gem is broken into pieces, and scattered across the five regions (Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail). The shattering of the sacred item, has led to entities called the Druun, rising up and destroying the people and their livelihoods in these regions.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) converses with Sisu (Awkwafina).

It is Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) from the Heart region, who seeks out the last dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina), in hopes that the creature can help restore the gem, and bring an end to the devastation.

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Right off the bat, Raya as a film quickly sets up that it is going to tell its story in a much different light that what we have come to expect. It feels like It has been quite awhile since we had a new film break from the expected, and that was what quickly grabbed my attention.

Once the story gets going, Raya herself is our eyes and ears, as we make our way through each of the regions. Tran’s vocals give the character a few playful moments here-and-there, but Raya is probably one of the more serious lead heroines the studio has had in awhile.

Because of Raya’s demeanor, much of the humor is left to Sisu (aka the last dragon). When she first appears, it isn’t too hard to think that she seems like the love-child of Aladdin’s genie, and Mulan’s Mushu the dragon. Sisu cracks wise and acts quite aloof, but in quieter moments, can be a voice of reason to Raya. However, the character is rather hit-or-miss at times for me, along with some of what Awkwafina brings to the table.

Namaari (Gemma Chan), with warriors from the Fang region.

One character whom crosses paths with Raya several times, is Namaari (Gemma Chan), daughter of the Fang region’s royal family, and someone who was instrumental in giving Raya trust issues in her past. There are times where it feels like the film wants to open up more in regards to Namaari (almost like it wants to really make the story about her and Raya’s viewpoints), but the film feels like it has to narrow its focus, and in doing so, Raya’s journey wins out.

That seems to be one of the big issues I had with the film. Much like Big Hero 6, it has a number of characters thrown into the mix, but they are mainly here for the action, and not to have us get too deep into whom they are. Much like how Big Hero chose to keep its main focus on Hiro and Baymax, the focus here stays mostly on Raya and Sisu, even as they gather new acquaintances along their journey.

It feels like the films editing at times even has some odd choices. Some scenes have some rather jarring fades, almost like the filmmakers were at a loss regarding where to go for some scenes. Given the film was made during the Pandemic in the last year (and sports 4 director credits and 8 writers credits!), I do wonder how precarious it was to keep balance on the film.

When it comes to focusing on particular story elements, it is in “trust and hope” that the film mostly concerns itself with. At times, it feels like the filmmakers are using the film as a mirror to our own world (much like how Zootopia tackled topics such as racism and prejudice), but it doesn’t feel like it manages to come through strong enough with what it wants to say.

This isn’t to say that the film is bad.

A scene from Raya’s journey through Kumandra.

I did find my attention perking up more as the film moved into its second act, and it was nice to see an animated feature that showcases some great artistry in bringing the worlds onscreen to life. I was very taken by the rendering of water in a number of scenes, feeling like what had been learned on Frozen II had been taken to a new level.

It is also nice to see the filmmakers forego the “loner who doesn’t need friends” cliche that we’ve seen in other films, or making Raya a character hellbent on revenge for what has happened to her and her family. The film even subtly hints at her royal heritage, but the film manages to spare us from giving her a royal moniker.

Raya and the Last Dragon is an action film from Disney that has heart, but to me, it needed some extra TLC to really stand toe-to-toe in the story department of some of the studio’s stronger films in the last decade.

Final Grade: B

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Movie Review: Soul

Rated PG for some language and thematic elements

Ever since they were founded back in 1986, PIXAR Animation Studios has often looked to utilize their animation and storytelling skills, in unexpected ways. 25 years ago, rather than adapt a fairy tale or do a musical like The Walt Disney Studios, they created an original film about toys that would surprise many of us.

Since then, they have often looked to do concepts most would never consider. From culinary rats to a dystopian romance between two automatons, they have (usually) sold us on their often unusual ideas.

Five years ago, writer/director Pete Doctor took one of the studio’s biggest conceptual leaps with his film tied into the human mind (2015’s Inside Out). And now at the tail-end of 2020, in a world where life-and-death seem balanced on a knife’s edge on a daily basis, he tackles another concept that no other studio would dare consider.

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Musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has spent his life longing to hit the big-time, and become a successful Jazz musician. However, just when his dream is poised to come true, an accident sends Joe into an out-of-body experience.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) takes a stroll through New York City.

Determined to get back to his body, Joe ends up in a place called The Great Before, where souls are prepared to be sent to Earth. Taking on the role of a mentor, Joe is assigned to the troublesome 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent a long time refusing to find anything worthwhile about living.

Even so, Joe is willing to try anything (and everything), if it can mean him getting back to make his big break.

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To most of us, Pete Doctor has created some of the studios’ most memorable films. His work on Monsters Inc paved the way for even greater success with Up in 2009. As I went over his films, I felt that Doctor tended to do quite well when it came to emotional beats (the relationship between Sully and Boo still stands out), but in regards to the connective tissue of his films, it often feels like he’s jamming together a lot of ideas and such, that get a little too cumbersome to achieve equilibrium (just how did Charles Muntz survive for so long in Up, anyways?).

While I did feel Doctor made strides in Inside Out to try and pull together a more cohesive storyline, I have felt that maybe in some cases, he gets a bit too enveloped into the worlds or concepts he wants to tackle, and that can cause little kinks in his stories in places.

As a character, Joe Gardner may put some in mind of Up’s Carl Fredericksen. Both are people who hold on deeply to a dream, and can come off as a bit obsessive when it comes to making that dream come true. Joe’s passion for Jazz and his own daily struggles were something I could latch onto though, but it did feel at times that Joe ends up maybe being used a bit more for comic relief than he should.

Joe (Jamie Fox) attempts to find something that will interest 22 (Tina Fey) to give living a chance.

In the case of 22, I feel Tina Fey does decent work with her character, but like Joe, it feels like maybe there could have been a bit more to her than what we get. 22 is portrayed almost like someone who has had the world explained to them through virtual reality, but is someone moreso able to learn-by-doing. There are some fun little moments of interaction she has with Joe on her journey, but it felt like she just needed something extra to really make her stick with me.

For most of the film, we alternate between the Real World environment of New York City, and the more abstract visuals of The Great Beyond/Before. Much like Doctor’s alternating environs for Inside Out, the artists and technicians at Pixar once again assault our senses in a number of ways that will inspire and amaze. Each place also has hyper-stylized figures, with New York filled with caricatured humans, and The Great Beyond/Before filled with flat/abstract beings (most of them named Jerry). A highlight is the soul-counter named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who is determined to find Joe.

Jerry (Alice Braga) and Terry (Rachel House) keep count over souls heading to The Great Beyond.

Soul also marks the first time some new musicians and composers have been brought into the mix, with a soundtrack that tag-teams Jon Batiste doing Jazz arrangements for the film, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose using their electronic music skills to set the mood of the The Great Beyond, and some of the quieter moments. It’s an unusual mixture of sounds and instru,entals that is quite a lovely breath of fresh air from some of the more regular composers we’ve heard. A highlight is one track where all three men manage to combine their skills into a piece that is one of the more memorable musical pieces I’ve heard all year.

To me, Pete Doctor is not a bad director, but I just wish his storytelling and filmmaking skills would rise to the levels I’ve seen from other directors like Brad Bird (The Incredibles), and Lee Unkrich (Coco). Soul weaves a tale about how our experiences and movements through life tend to make us who we are, but stumbles on it’s way to greatness (in my eyes).

When Doctor hits us with the emotional moments here (like with Up), those will be what washes over most viewers. However, in the process of doing this, he manages to easily distract from the flimsiness and flaws that are often a part of his storytelling process. After 2 decades, I’m starting to think this may just be the way Doctor is “wired” into filmmaking.

Final Grade: B

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 8) – The Rescue

These days, it can be nice when in a world rampant with spoilers, some things can still surprise you.

I remember wandering around Star Wars Celebration in 2019, and seeing people psyched up for The Mandalorian. Even with a prop speeder bike from the show on display, I just dismissed the show as some way to placate the Boba Fett fanboys.

Imagine my surprise later that fall, when I found out how series creator Jon Favreau had something a little different in mind: a series that tapped into the western and samurai tales that George Lucas sought inspiration from, and attempted to tell a live-action story outside the confines of The Skywalker Saga.

Pretty soon, I was drawn into the adventures of Din Djarin (aka the Mandalorian), and his unexpected charge Grogu, aka “The Child.” The show managed to hit me with just enough nostalgia, while taking us off into places that the films would not generally go to.

And now, we find ourselves at the end of the second season, and it’s much-anticipated finale.

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With the coordinates to Moff Gideon’s (Giancarlo Esposito) cruiser now in his possession, The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) puts his plan into action to rescue Grogu.

Along with cohorts Cara Dune(Gina Carano), Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), Mando recruits fellow Mandalorians Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), and Koska Reeves (Sasha Banks) to help them out.

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After episode 6 of this season, I did wonder if the season finale could do everything it needed to in just 45 minutes. Turns out, I didn’t have much to worry about.

One thing that has been clear over much of season 2, is how the show feels no guilt in reaching back into it’s cast of characters to pull some into the light for various missions. Characters like Mythrol and Miggs Mayfield were definitely a surprise to see play larger supporting roles this season, but I didn’t expect to see Bo-Katan and Koska return before the season ended.

For much of the episode, the action is split-up (with Boba taking a backseat to much of the action). While Mando goes in on his own, it was a nice touch seeing the women of the episode work together in infiltrating the ship. Each of them brings something useful to the fight, and getting to see them interact was a highlight. One highlight for me, was seeing a bit more action given to Fennec Shand, whom I have felt had been rather downplayed since her return to the series.

Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Koska Reeves (Sasha Banks) infiltrate Moff Gideon’s ship.

Seen briefly in episode 6, we also get some of our first full glimpses of Moff Gideon’s nightmarish Darktrooper squad in action. The Terminator-like creations provide some nice tense moments, with an added musical cue from composer Ludwig Goransson to make things seem even more harrowing when our group encounters them on the cruiser.

Like a number of episodes this season, this one attempts to balance out action with emotion, and when it comes to emotions, this episode might hit viewers in ways they never imagined.

Certain revelations given in this episode did push a number of my emotional buttons, but once I had some time to recover and collect my thoughts, I had to judge the episode on it’s overall merits. In fact, one revelation would have probably pushed the episode to the top of my favorites of the season, if certain information hadn’t been given away a few times prior to this episode.

Mando (Pedro Pascal) encounters a cadre of Darktroopers

One of the things about the first season of The Mandalorian that I really enjoyed, was that Din Djarin seemed to be a part of the Star Wars galaxy, but quite removed from the previous “lore” that had been a major part of our lives. Seeing Mando encounter characters like Boba Fett and Ahsoka Tano I feel is okay, but I often felt that with Star Wars being such a large sandbox to play in, the show could have done a better job of carving out it’s own way in the universe. That to me seems to be the teeter-totter that the series rests on: it tries to make it’s own way, but has a “habit” of diving a little too often into “the familiar.”

The Rescue definitely feels like a turning-point for the series. It draws a curtain over the eight episodes we’ve invested in over the last few months, but much like The Empire Strikes Back, leaves us at a point where we don’t know just where its characters can go. While some mysteries have been solved, new ones have been revealed. It doesn’t feel like there are any easy answers regarding where most of our main characters can go, and that will surely have many of us guessing as we wait once again, for a new season to start up.

I will admit that season 2 of The Mandalorian didn’t win me over as much as the first season, but watching it there were moments where I wished I was watching these episodes with a theater audience. I saw scenes where I could imagine audiences being just as rowdy and enthusiastic as I recall from the opening night of some of the Star Wars films.

If anything, my one hope is when the series returns, we get a lessening of “guest stars,” and focus a little more on developing the cast of characters surrounding Din Djarin, and where his journeys will take him next.

Final Grade: B+

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 7) – The Believer

As we near the end of Season 2 of The Mandalorian, it’s been a bumpy-yet-enjoyable ride. There have been quite a few callbacks to Season 1, with some new revelations adding to the story of Mando and his young charge, Grogu. The show has also twisted in ways I didn’t expect, and still it has proven itself to be one of the most enjoyable things associated with the words Star Wars in quite some time for me.

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Thanks to some help from Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Mando manages to spring a mercenary named Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr). A former Imperial, Migs is Mando’s key to finding Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito), who is now in possession of Grogu.

With an assist from Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), the group head to the planet Morak, where Mayfield can hopefully put his former skills to good use.

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It feels like just when our momentum was building up in relation to the closing of Season 2, the series once again puts us in a “holding pattern.” The Believer is another “heist” storyline (directed by show alumni Rick Famuyiwa), but with a few tricks up it’s sleeves.

When it comes to Mayfield, I think like many of us who saw him in the season 1 episode The Prisoner, we figured he wasn’t ever going to be seen again. Much like the character of Mythrol a few episodes back, Mayfield is a reluctant part of the crew. While abrasive and a bit of a motormouth (he feels like the Joe Pantoliano of the episode!), the writers manage to give most of his ramblings a purpose to the story. A highlight comes during a transport scene, where he attempts to engage Mando in conversation.

Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Mando (Pedro Pascal), Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr) plot their next moves

For much of the story, Mando’s companions take a backseat as he and Mayfield are front-and-center on their mission. It almost becomes an impromptu buddy storyline, and even gives us some further insight into just how strictly Mando is willing to stick to his Mandalorian code given where his journeys have taken him.

In terms of new worlds on the show, Morak is one of the first jungle environments we’ve seen, and one that manages to give us callbacks to Rogue One in terms of the types of troopers we see. There’s also an action-scene involving a turbo tank-style transport vehicle, that definitely feels like it could have been plucked right out of a video game. The planet stop-off gives us another glimpse into the remnants of The Empire working to rebuild in the shadow of The New Republic, and offers a brief glimpse into Imperial ideologies, in the form of an officer named Valin Hess (Richard Brake)

Imperial officer Valin Hess (Richard Brake) shares a drink with some troopers

Unlike typical Imperials, Hess’ drawl seems a little out-of-place coming from the mouth of an officer. Even so, the character manages to be quite intriguing given his limited appearance. The show has done a commendable job so far making even the post-ROTJ Imperials interesting characters to watch.

Overall, The Believer feels like previous Season 2 episodes The Passenger and The Siege: it gives us a chance to catch our breath, before plunging us into what will hopefully be an even more exciting episode. Even so, it might be one of those episodes that may age better with time, given some of what is discussed and revealed regarding its characters, and their ideologies.

Final Grade: B-

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 6) – The Tragedy

We’ve now reached the 75% mark for Season 2 of The Mandalorian, and the episodes have tended to bounce back-and-forth between great and good. With the last several episodes delving into The Clone Wars series, the latest episode catches up on a real blast from the past.

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After their encounter with Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and Grogu (formerly known as The Child) head to Tython, where there exists a place that can possibly help them contact other Jedi who might help them give Grogu safe haven.

Shortly after touching down, things don’t go as planned when Mando finds himself facing off against stormtroopers, a foe he once thought dead, and a bounty hunter with a familiar ship.

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Following last week’s events, the opening moments show some further understanding between Mando and Grogu, though it is soon after this that their latest adventure becomes like a video game level. Ever play video games where you have to keep the enemy from advancing on a specific target? This is the episode-equivalent of that very game level!

One thing I was largely on the fence about as soon as it was announced, was hearing that Temuera Morrison (who played Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones) would be appearing as Boba Fett this season. I’ve long been of the thought that while he looked cool, Boba had served his purpose and perished in Return of the Jedi. However, the reappearance of his armor and the final shot of the Season 2 premiere episode The Marshal, piqued my interest.

For this episode, Jon Favreau manages to write Boba as being much more interesting than just the cool-looking guy standing around in the original trilogy (even giving Boba a small callback to his father). We can believe Fett knows his way around blasters and jetpacks, but going into action without these things was most unexpected. A highlight was seeing Morrison wield a gaderffii stick like a Maori warrior, causing me to get drawn into the character for the first time watching him onscreen.

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) encounters Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison)

We also get the return of Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), whom we last saw on Tatooine in the first season. Much like that appearance however, she’s mainly just along for the ride, making me wonder if the show is just saving her for a much more interesting bit later on (maybe she’ll get her “moment” like IG-11 in the first season?).

When it comes to the arrival of the stormtroopers (coming in some pre-Episode VII troop-transports), this is where the video game-style feelings of the episode begin. Pretty soon, the standard white of the trooper armor gives way to several different varieties, making it feel like a group of online players are mounting an assault on the show. There’s even the appearance of some troopers that play into what was shown at the end of the last episode, making me develop some ideas regarding what the villainous Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) wants Grogu for.

Grogu encounters some dark visitors

The episode is short on revelations, and feels moreso like the kind of action-oriented fare we saw in The Siege. Director Robert Rodriguez (known for his El Mariachi trilogy) never keeps the action from getting dull, and there are some moments that really pushed my buttons emotionally (including one that made me sense a great disturbance in The Force). There are a few times where I did question some things he made Mando do that were somewhat repetitive. It might have been meant to make it seem humorous with each attempt he made, but it felt like it was merely a way to stretch the run-time out a little (this episode clocks in at just 33 minutes, the shortest chapter of the season so far).

The results of The Tragedy, feels like we are entering the Empire Strikes Back portion of Season 2. not that the first 5 episodes weren’t hard on Mando in their own right, but this episode ends in probably one of the most tense cliffhangers yet. It isn’t on the same high shelf that I place Season 2 episodes The Marshal and The Jedi, but it manages to make due with what it has to offer. I do hope that with the final episodes, we get a return to stories that have been longer than most of what we’ve encountered this season.

Final Grade: B

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 5) – The Jedi

When The Mandalorian first started, it felt like we were going to see a world where most of what we had learned via the Star Wars films, would take a backseat. Series creator Jon Favreau, looked to be shifting his focus to the grittier side of the galaxy we had glimpsed just briefly in George Lucas’ films.

With The Child showing a resemblance to Yoda and possessing Force-based powers, there was a hint that the Jedi might be showing up in the series…and now, it looks like that time has come.

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Going on information given to him by fellow Mandalorian Bo-Katan, Mando takes The Child to Corvus, where he hopes to find a Jedi that will accept his young charge.

It is here that he encounters the walled city of Calodan, presided over by the cruel Magistrate Morgan Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosanto), and her lieutenant Lang (Michael Biehn).

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is escorted into Calodan

Elsbeth requests Mando’s help to take down a Jedi named Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), who has been attempting to breach the walls of her city.

It just so happens, that Ahsoka is also the Jedi that Mando is looking for.

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While the series has shown us a galaxy following the aftermath of the events of Return of the Jedi, this season has also shown us that the series is not afraid to reference things from the prequel films, let alone The Clone Wars animated series.

With The Jedi, writer/director Dave Feloni gets to bring one of the characters he created to life, showing us Ahsoka Tano far removed from what has been seen. Rosario Dawson disappears into her character, showing us someone who seems to have chosen her own path, but still remembers much of her days before the Jedi Purge. The way she is portrayed here, it’s a good bet that current fans of hers will be pleased, and a number of new fans for Ahsoka will be joining them soon.

Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) converses with The Child

The episode also gives us some of the most intimate moments with Mando and The Child we’ve seen yet. It feels like it has been awhile since we saw them connect like this, and Ahsoka acts as an intermediary to help Mando better understand the little one (even revealing it’s name!). Though much like his seeking out Mandalorians in the episode The Mistress, Mando’s search for a Jedi does not quite provide him with all the answers he seeks.

In terms of antagonists, Morgan Elsbeth is more of a low-key villain this time around, a figure who stands calm-and-collected in many situations, but is willing to fight if the need arises. A surprising guest appearance was seeing actor Michael Biehn as her lieutenant. Much like Timothy Olyphant earlier in the season, he just blends in surprisingly well for his brief appearance.

For the theming of this episode, the stylings of samurai films are on full display. From the high walls surrounding Caloden, to the barren stalks of trees silhouetted against the moonlit sky, Feloni is tapping into some familiar theming. Even the opening that introduces Ahsoka feels like it has Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s fingerprints on it. The episode overall feels more like an exercise in quietness and contemplation, than the pulse-pounding action we’ve seen in recent episodes.

Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) confronts Morgan Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosanto)

This is definitely an episode that requires multiple viewings. Much like how George Lucas would layer in details for the prequels, Filoni does the same here, making me think even a few viewings may not be enough to catch a number of the details included here.

The Jedi will surely provide those with fond memories of Ahsoka Tano, an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Its story swings more towards a samurai tale than a western, but it helps act as a nice change of scenery, where we get to slow down and learn more about our lead characters, without having a major threat to contend with. This may also be one of the most emotional episodes we’ve had in the series so far, but we should be wary as dark clouds still loom on the horizon, and the journey for Mando and The Child, may be a ways off from coming to its conclusion.

Final Grade: B+

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 4) – The Siege

The Mandalorian’s quest continues ever onward, but just when it seems his path is clear, we can always count on something popping up to divert his attention.

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With his ship needing additional repairs, Mando returns to Nevarro (where he first got the assignment that led him to The Child). Since the events of last season, the once lawless town has been cleaned up by cohorts Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), and Cara Dune (Gina Carano).

While things appear to be going okay, the two request Mando’s help to take out an operational Imperial base nearby, that could threaten their attempts to keep order.

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After what we learned in the previous episode, I was really looking forward to The Siege…only to find my excitement tempered, when it was revealed that this was another “back to a familiar locale” episode (at this rate, it makes me wonder if the showrunners are going to send us back to the greenery of Sorgan before the season is up).

Unlike other season 1 locations, we return to a destination that has been transformed. With Greef and Cara having taken control, the streets are now thriving with newcomers and more colorful decorations…while still proving that evil is never fully eradicated in some small, action-packed scenes.

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and The Child are welcomed back to Nevarro by Cara Dune (Gina Carano), and Greef Karga (Carl Weathers)

Speaking of “never fully eradicated,” a surprise guest is the aquatic-based Mythrol (Horatio Sanz) from the season 1 premiere episode, who ends up getting dragged along on the mission thanks to Greef. Mythrol almost becomes the C-3PO of the episode, though a tad less whiny in a few situations.

As this is largely a “mission” episode, The Child is put on the sidelines for much of the action. He has a small-but-entertaining scene in the beginning, but the story’s attempts to give him some humor in several other scenes, felt more like the attempts at humor from the earlier episode, The Passenger.

This episode also marks the first directed by a cast member, as Carl Weathers takes on the task. At times, the action-based pacing and setup feels oddly reminiscent of the last episode (The Mistress), but a little more “old-school.” There are even some scenes that made me imagine the excited reactions of a theater audience, given what is put on display here.

Cara Dune, The Mandalorian, Greef Karga, and Mythrol (Horatio Sanz) infiltrate an Imperial Base on Nevarro

The Imperial Base and what goes on within it feels almost like a video game, and the ensuing fight between our heroes and the soldiers that occupy it, feels like some kids playing with their toys in the backyard. There also is the added information that the actions of the shadowy Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito), are not as generalized as we may have thought. One scene caught me completely off-guard, let alone the use of an often-maligned word that had me chuckling at the internet reaction.

The Siege was not what I expected, but it was still surprising once I realized the episode had secrets of its own to reveal. Mando ends up on a mission that reveals things that could send shockwaves through the rest of the galaxy, but it’s too soon to know just what has been uncovered.

It’s a nice little episode to catch up with old friends and reminisce about the past, though it does make me wonder how many additional subplots will be revealed before the season ends, and if the show can find balance once they’ve been revealed.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review: Over The Moon

Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild action

In the last few years, Netflix has expanded its reach into the world of animation, offering an unexpected challenge to some of the big-name studios in Hollywood. Along with animated TV shows like Hilda and Bojack Horseman, they have also entered the arena of animated features, recently producing last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Klaus.

This fall sees the company’s release of the Pearl Studios feature film Over The Moon, directed by two men who once worked for Walt Disney Feature Animation. Glen Keane was part of the company’s character animation division (developing characters such as Ariel and The Beast), while John Kahrs is known for directing the studio’s Oscar-winning short Paperman.

With Over The Moon, they tell the story of a Chinese girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang). Uncomfortable at the prospect of her widowed Father (John Cho) remarrying, the studious girl holds onto the story of Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) the immortal Moon Goddess who never forgot her one true love.

Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) and Bungee

Using her ingenuity, Fei Fei builds a rocket, hoping that if she meets Chang’e, she may provide her with the means to change her Father’s mind.

Glen Keane has often focused on characters that seem to be stuck between two worlds, and Fei Fei fits the bill. On one hand she inherits her father’s tendencies towards math and science, while embracing the Chinese legends her mother taught her. That mixture of combining logic with legends is intriguing, but it unfortunately feels like it gets lost as the film progresses.

On any serious journey like this, one needs all manner of sidekicks to help and/or irritate the lead. In Fei Fei’s case, we get a big-eyed bun-bun named Bungee, and on the moon we have a glowing green dog-creature named Gobi (Ken Jeong). There also is Chin (Robert G Chiu), Fei Fei’s overly-energetic stepbrother-to-be who never seems to run out of energy. While they prove helpful in some situations, most of the time they feel like they exist to distract the younger audiences.

In terms of secondary characters, Chang’e is one whom it feels like we could have gone deeper into regarding her emotions. We see her characterization being almost like a superstar with a diva-like persona, but also see that despite seeming to be loud-and-proud, there is something lurking beneath the surface that she may be trying to hide. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem willing to explore much in this regard, let alone her relationship with her pet rabbit named Jade. Even Jade himself feels shuffled into a corner, when he could have played a much larger role in us understanding how Chang’e has weathered the centuries being alone.

Chang’e (Phillipa Soo)

It’s also never explained how the “kingdom” of Luminaria Chang’e rules over came to be. Looking like a luminescent space Oz, we’re told nothing of its development, let alone more information on the luminescent beings whom inhabit it and the moon. It probably could have added an extra 10-15 minutes to the plot, but it mostly feels like what we see is just meant to enthrall us visually in the hopes that we’ll just end up totally enamored with the on-screen journey.

I was also surprised when the film led off with a song, and then piled on another one right after it. The songs in the film are okay, jumping into a number of different styles, but none of them really stuck with me once it was all over. One near the end had potential, but the structure and lyrics just don’t have the kind of memorable feel of songs from such popular fare like The Little Mermaid, or Frozen.

At times, Over The Moon’s story structure reminded me of Meet the Robinsons and Up, and while those films had flimsy subplots and sometimes annoying supporting characters, they were supported by decent storytelling to lift up the visuals, and support the lead character’s journey of self-discovery.

Fei Fei surveys the kingdom of Luminaria

In the case of Moon, the film surprised me with its hope that Fei Fei’s emotional journey and the flashy visuals will distract viewers from the fact that the foundations of the story are incredibly flimsy. It feels like Keane and Kahrs try to over-compensate too much in the areas of emotion and visuals, throwing the balance of the film out-of-whack in a most unexpected way (I’m used to the opposite in animated films, where mindless slapstick and pop-culture references hope to chase off pesky emotional stuff). Most films would have a solid story foundation, but I found that to be severely lacking once the film picked up momentum and got us to the moon.

The film was also one of the final projects for screenwriter Audrey Wells, who is said to have written the story as a gift to her husband and daughter as she lost her battle with cancer. Knowing full-well that same feeling of loss, it does feel sad that such a heartfelt gift sadly does not hold up to being something as powerful as it could be. The story gives us little pockets of emotional moments, but when strung together into the final product, the unevenness of the story really stands out.

Over The Moon will surely entrance and entertain some, but to me, it is sadly a misfire from two filmmakers who were instrumental in making me realize the power of emotional storytelling in animation, and a mother who wanted to leave something emotionally beautiful for her family. Both Keane and Kahrs have shown their talents for doing emotional directorial projects in animated short format, but it feels like they attempted to translate those skills into a feature, and came up short. In conclusion, there are small bits here-and-there where things click for the film, but in judging it as a whole, it shoots for the moon and misses.

Final Grade: B-

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 3) – The Mistress

As the second season of The Mandalorian hits its third episode, its strong season premiere and decent second episode have brought us back into the series in a big way. Can the third episode improve on what has come before?

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After managing to ferry his passenger from the last episode to her husband, Mando is informed that there are Mandalorians near the spaceport where his ship is. What he finds is quite a revelation, but is a key to him hopefully being able to reunite the child in his care, with the Jedi.

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If you thought the previous episode was short, The Mistress has it beat by clocking in at just 35 minutes. The length of these most recent episodes makes me wonder if episodes 2 and 3 were meant to be one story, but were split in two due to how much was going on.

Bryce Dallas Howard returns to the director’s chair, showing us once again that she knows how to pull at our emotions, and get us pulled into the action. This episode has much more action than her last episode in season 1, and makes me eager to know what more she could do for the series.

The Child and The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) take to the high seas in search of other Mandalorians Warriors.

The environment of this episode is probably the wettest we’ve encountered yet, and makes for a nice change-of-pace. We see a population largely made up of sea creatures such as Mon Calamari and Squid Heads, let alone how this area has fared after the fall of the Empire.

The Mandalorians our lead encounters manage to be quite surprising in their depiction. Led by Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), they reveal some additional information in regards to Mandalorian codes, and the history of the warriors. One can definitely sense some apprehension when they do things that seem outside of the code that Mando has lived by for much of his life, but it is notable that this does not stop them from offering help when Mando needs it in several instances.

Mando meets warriors Koska Reeves (Sasha Banks) Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), and Axe Woves (Simon Kassianides)

This episode also continues the “you have to do us a favor” theme from the previous episodes, as Mando is recruited to help deal with some post-Empire loyalists. Howard’s directing of the event is incredibly exciting, and blends drama, action, and a little humor into the mission.

The Mistress manages to bring us some new revelations amidst an action-oriented episode, making it feel like a short-but-sweet storyline. I like episodes where we learn more about the galaxy, and this one where we learn a bit more about Mandalorian codes and post-Empire actions, delivered very well. The introduction of some new characters here leaves the door open to not only the possibility of us seeing them again, but knowing there is even more about The Mandalorians that has yet to be revealed.

Final Grade: B

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 2) – The Passenger

After a strong season 2 opener, The Mandalorian has gotten us excited to follow the series’ helmeted lead and his young companion, as they set off on a personal mission, and encounter harrowing adventures along the way.

With the second episode, the Star Wars galaxy opens up a bit wider, but just in smaller increments.

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The Mandalorian continues his quest to find more of his kind, to help return The Child where it belongs. When an expectant mother needs passage to reach her husband, Mando begrudgingly accepts in exchange for information that might help him.

However, the journey comes with extra stipulations, and leads the group into more than they bargained for.

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While starting off in a familiar locale, this episode takes us to some (supposedly) new territory, while keeping much of the nostalgia to a bare minimum. We also get to encounter some new surroundings and creatures, that might put some viewers on edge.

The Child enjoys a barbecue.

Speaking of creatures, for those who didn’t feel there was enough of The Child in the last episode, this one should be greatly entertaining. We get to see it go through quite a range of emotions, and get in a few, humorous moments of troublemaking that almost make him seem “gremlin-like.”

The mother of the piece is probably not going to win a lot of people over (amphibious creatures in Star Wars seem to grate on most peoples’ nerves), but we do see that she can be resourceful when necessary, while also concerned in regards to herself and her unborn young. What could have become a stereotypical “annoying passenger” with an urgent issue, is nicely kept in check for most of the episode (even if she speaks “frog” most of the time).

One highlight is an aerial sequence in which Mando encounters some X-Wing fighters. While we saw them briefly in the first season, this one showcases Industrial Light & Magic’s technological advances in recent years. Somehow, they’ve managed to find a nice balance between the visuals of the starships we saw decades go, while placing them into some picturesque scenery with real-world detailing.

The Razor Crest encounters two New Republic X-Wing Fighters.

This episode also brings a new director into the fold, with Peyton Reed (director of Ant-Man) at the helm. Reed brings what feels like a nice, old-school simplicity to the story. There aren’t a lot of wide-open vistas once the main part of the story begins, and the camerawork feels both intimate and claustrophobic for much of the episode (with one scene even feeling like Reed is borrowing from the Spielberg book of framing).

On the whole, the story does prove to show us more of how Mando operates, but just feels average. A much shorter side-adventure (clocking in at only 41 minutes!), The Passenger takes its time a bit more than most episodes, stretching out its storyline in a way which might bore some of the younger viewers, but felt like a nice breather compared to last week’s episode. At this point, the episode could just be allowing us to catch our breaths, before next weeks episode ramps back up to speeds and excitement we’re well used to.

Final Grade: B

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