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TV Series Season Review: Stranger Things 3

I was originally dragged into the series Stranger Things, by some friends who claimed it was right up my alley. What I had thought was maybe some cheaply-made rip on Steven Spieberg’s Amblin Entertainment productions of the 1980’s, soon had me enamored with the mysterious story unfolding around it’s characters.

Four years later, the series is back for it’s third season, this time moving us out of the chill of late fall, and into the sun-drenched world of summer in Hawkins, Indiana.

As the Fourth of July approaches, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobbi Brown) are in the throes of young love, much to the ire of her adoptive father-figure, Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour).

Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) are also continuing their relationship, and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) has returned from camp, with news that he too has joined the dating scene (however, with no proof of this mystery girl to be had).

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) meanwhile, struggles to feel included in his friend’s activities, as they each seem to have grown beyond the simple pleasures of Dungeons and Dragons.

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L to R: Max (Sadie Sink), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Eleven (Millie Bobby-Brown)

As for the older kids, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) are interning at The Hawkins Post, with Nancy struggling to prove her worth to the uncouth men in high places.

Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) has taken a job at the new Starcourt Mall, scooping ice cream while fending off snide remarks from his co-worker, Robin (Maya Hawke).

For this season, the Duffer Brothers seem to have decided that the two themes to focus on, are “relationships,” and “change.”

We see this in a big way with our younger cast, but not just in regards to romantic relationships. We also see relationships in regards to family and friends, and how sometimes it can be a struggle to keep connections with those close to you. This is also notable in regards to Dustin, who chooses to spend more time with Steve than his old friends.

For the adults, the theme of relationships snares Jim Hopper, and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder). With Joyce no longer frantically looking around for her son (though still mourning the loss of former boyfriend Bob Newby (Sean Astin)), she is given the chance to be more of a person this time around, as she tries to help Hopper with his fatherly ups-and-downs.

Hopper also gets the chance to move outside of his comfort zone, and we see him doing (and wearing) things that are quite unnatural. David Harbour really gets to chew the scenery in a number of scenes, and I was quite amused by some of his reactions.

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One of the stand-outs from the series, has been Millie Bobby-Brown’s character of Eleven. While she has slowly emerged into the world from her isolation, this season gives her the biggest shove yet.

This also comes in the form of  Max taking a sisterly-approach towards Eleven, and helping her expand her world-view. While Mike gives her plenty of attention and Hopper gives familial care and discipline, Eleven is still struggling to create her own identity, and it’s nice to see a character like Max help Eleven figure out who she is, and wants to be.

We also see the world of our characters expanded upon, with the addition of Starcourt Mall, along with the introduction of Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes).  It’s a big new world that we’re seeing, and in that sense, that enlarged atmosphere feels like it causes the story to trip up in places.

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We’ve been no stranger to multiple story threads weaving their way through the show, but there are times season 3’s overall storyline feels a bit too cumbersome. From Dustin building a radio tower that intercepts a secret code, to some rather mysterious business-dealings happening around town, I found myself almost having to keep a scorecard regarding what was going on, let alone a number of new characters the show was trying to make me believe were important to the plot. Heck, the show even tries to cram in characters that I didn’t even think we’d need from previous seasons (though one does have a pretty fun introduction)!

This season is also the first time that the cameras feel like they’re angling for product-placement dollars. From Eleven and Max gallivanting around the mall, to almost everyone in Hawkins having jumped aboard the New Coke craze, I could easily have sided with Will Byers, longing for a return to the simpler times of the first season.

When it comes to the supernatural element of the show, the ante (and budget) has been upped significantly. The new menace in question, hearkens back to the likes of The Thing or The Blob, while also dealing with some elements from last season. It was definitely not what I expected, and ended up taking the “horror” tones of the show, into some areas that may make some viewers feel uncomfortable.

There is also an added human menace in the background for much of the show too, that almost comes off feeling a little…cliched. Then again, given we are dealing with the 1980’s, it was probably to be expected, but it really pushed against the believability factor for me…and that’s in a show with a girl that has psychic abilities.

Aside from an overstuffed story and my gripes here-and-there, I was happy to see that the handling of the evolution of our main characters, is still a key priority in the series.

The show creators have said they could see the show lasting for 4-5 seasons, and if it can continue to grow character-wise like we’ve seen in the last seasons, it makes one wonder what will become of our characters…and, how many of them will live to see the end of the series.

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Final Grade: B+

 

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Movie Review: Toy Story 4

Rated G

Nine years ago, PIXAR Animation Studios seemed to have wrapped up the adventures of Woody, Buzz, and their toy pals in a nice, emotionally-charged little package…or so we thought.

Toy Story 4 catches up with Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang shortly after the events of the last film. While Woody struggles to help his new owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), things get weird when a craft project Bonnie dubs Forky (Tony Hale), suddenly comes to life!

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Forky (Tony Hale) and Woody (Tom Hanks)

It is during a road trip that the manic creation wanders off, leaving Woody to try and return the new “toy” back to it’s owner. During the journey, they encounter some new toys…and a familiar face or two.

In watching the Toy Story films over the years, it has felt like their plots mirror human life, but in “toy terms.” If the last film was about Woody learning to let go of his owner Andy, then this film is him dealing with his retirement years. In that sense, Woody’s part in the storyline will probably go over the heads of the younger crowd, but for those getting on in years, they will probably see something of themselves in the cowboy doll’s struggles.

Compared to it’s predecessors, this film definitely feels like it’s trying to pay homage to it’s past stories, but also trying to embrace these characters with new eyes. Much of the original crew that created the first film have moved on, making this an effort largely created by a newer generation.

For a portion of the film, the character of Forky becomes our Buzz Lightyear: a toy that can’t quite accept what it is, and thinks it is something else entirely. I had hoped there would be a bit more interaction between Woody and Forky, but while Forky’s antics are quite entertaining, he soon seems to become little more than our macguffin for the story.

For those expecting to see some of their favorite toys in action, most of them are shuffled to the sidelines. Even Buzz feels quite under-utilized here. At one point, the story “equips” him with a running gag, but it quickly peters out after the first few uses.

In this film, our attention is given over to a number of “new toys.” From an antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to a pair of carnival toys named Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), the film gives these characters (and several others) a chance to shine.

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Bo Peep (Annie Potts)

One thing the film’s advertising has not shied away from, is publicizing the return of a character that was sorely missed from the last film: Bo Peep (played once again by Annie Potts). Her appearance here may be one of the most radical re-imaginings for a character PIXAR has done, as the once soft-spoken porcelain doll, has become quite independent in her time away from the others. One of Woody’s greatest fears is to be a lost toy, but Bo seems to prove that one may not always need a kid to survive in the world.

For most film series, the fourth film is usually the one that ends up crashing-and-burning, leaving people wishing the filmmakers had walked away a long time ago. While Toy Story 4 doesn’t quite top the toys’ last adventure in my book, it proves that PIXAR is still a major talent to be reckoned with.

I will confess that a whirlwind of emotions passed across my face through the course of the film, and while I was rarely ever bored, the flow of the film felt uneven at times. Still, when Toy Story 4 slowed down and took its time, that was where some of it’s most beautiful work “burned brightest,” and showed the company’s next generation of filmmakers may be quite capable of carrying the studios legacy to infinity, and beyond.

Final Grade: B+

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Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 20) – Pizza Party / The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse

As we move into the final episodes of Star vs the Forces of Evil’s fourth (and final) season, it looks like Mina Loveberry is not going to make things easy.

With a massive army of Solarian warriors and major threats to the monsters of the kingdom, things may be taking a turn for the worse in this latest episode.

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– Pizza Party –

In a shocking revelation, Moon reveals that Mina is actually working for her, but promises she can quell Mina’s bloodlust, if Eclipsa surrenders the crown to her, and leaves Mewni, along with Globgor and Meteora.

This story is one where there’s quite a number of revelations and head-butting to be had. It could have easily spiraled out-of-control between several of our characters, and ended up becoming a major shouting match, but I was surprised at how the story managed to weave everything together in a satisfying way. There’s plenty of things going on in this segment, that kept me eager to see what would happen next.

Earlier in the season, I was wondering about Moon’s feelings towards Eclipsa after events in season 3. I had a feeling she might harbor some ill feelings towards Eclipsa, but I definitely didn’t think she was capable of doing what she did. We also see that the Magic High Commission may have also wished Mina to return things to “normalcy,” but it looks like it is more for their benefit, and not that of the kingdom. In a pop-culture sense, it feels like Moon and the Commission, acted like the Mob in The Dark Knight, hiring an unstable individual to take care of their problem…but not realizing just what they were getting themselves into!

One other major surprise is in the opening, where we get a little backstory into who Mina was, before she was drafted into Queen Solaria’s Solarian Warrior program a long time ago. We also get our first animated viewing of Solaria in the flashback as well.

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Best line from segment (said by Eclipsa): “Oh to be perfectly honest, at this point I-I’ll skip the speech and be on my way!”

Final Grade: B

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– The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse –

Before Mina can attack them, Star, Marco, Moon, and Eclipsa are magicked away by Hekapoo, to the Tavern at the End of the Multiverse. The tavern functions as a neutral zone, and Hekapoo feels she’s saved the group from certain death. However, Eclipsa, Moon, and Star do not want to just sit around doing nothing, while Mewni is in peril.

While Moon and Eclipsa have a heart-to-heart over a game of pool, Star is surprised to find Glossaryck at the tavern, and forces him to have a discussion with her.

We also get some “ticking-clock” imagery from Mewni, regarding the fate of the monsters there, as well as what being attacked by a Solarian warrior’s sword can do to a monster (which is so shocking, it even freaks Janna out!).

This segment continues the trend of shocking revelations that we’ve seen over the last few segments. We get some regarding Moon, and a few regarding Star. Star’s revelations though, might be the most emotionally-charged of this entire segment. We get a return to The Grandma Room as glimpsed all the way back in season 2, to discuss something we saw there…and what it may mean for the future of Mewni.

It is very nice to see the writers didn’t waste their final 11-minute segment for the series. The talking that goes on here is quite revelatory, and it never feels like any of the time is being wasted.

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Best line from segment (said by Eclipsa): “My whole, entire life has been ‘a time like this,’ Moon. You learn to enjoy these moments.”

Final Grade: B+

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Eclipsa, in The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse): “That’s it! That’s it! You’re done-you’re all done! Game over!”

And then…there was one. One episode to go, and Star vs the Forces of Evil, comes to an end.

Join me soon, as I review the final episode: Cleaved. At the end of the first season, Glossaryck of Terms mentioned that something can be cleaved in two ways. It can be cleaved apart…or cleaved together.

Just what could this final title possibly mean?

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 19) – The Right Way / Here to Help

On the last episode of Star vs the Forces of Evil, our teenage gang returned to Mewni, and Mina Loveberry threw down the gauntlet, trying to take control of Mewni back from Queen Eclipsa.

It looks like a new Battle for Mewni…has begun.

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– The Right Way –

Things look bleak for Eclipsa and the monsters in her palace, until Star, several of her friends, and a number of Mewni warriors come to her aid.

If last episode’s segment was the wind-up, this one is the pitch, as we see Star and her cohorts attempt to do battle with Mina. Sadly, most just end up as little more than cannon-fodder when going up against her. However, there are a few surprises to be had. There also is a moment which might be Ponyhead’s most sincere declaration ever…but then again, she might just be playing it up big for her Ponyhead Show audience that’s watching the battle.

Star is the stand-out here, utilizing her magic in a way we haven’t seen before. Out of all these characters she is definitely the most powerful, and we see her wage a major fight that gets quite intense at times.

Eclipsa does come into play at one point, as well as one of her spells that was hinted at a few episodes ago. I had a feeling we’d see this used before the end of the season, though what the writers and artists conjure up for the damage the spell can do, definitely makes it quite shocking when we see it in action.

While the battle scenes definitely got my blood pumping, and Eclipsa’s use of a major spell was quite shocking, the up-and-down feeling of emotional momentum in this story kept me from really enjoying it like I was hoping to.

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Best line from segment (said by Star Butterfly): “RAINBOW KAIJU BATTLE-ARMOR!!!”

Final Grade: B-

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– Here to Help –

It turns out that the giant Solarian warrior that was thought to be Mina…wasn’t. Soon, Mina does show up at Monster Castle, leading a massive army of Solarian-warriors, and giving Eclipsa a time-frame to surrender…or be destroyed.

Things look bleak, until Moon Butterfly, and River Johansen arrive at Eclipsa’s palace, willing to help.

This segment seems to be rife with little ‘group-meetings.’ From Eclipsa and Moon, to Star and Marco, it seems to be a story rife with discussions. There’s even a little bit of discussion between River and Globgor. It’s not much, but it’s rather nice to see that River is still staying the course on giving respect and help to the new King of Mewni.

The writers also choose this segment, to mention some revelations between Star and Marco, from last episode’s Mama Star segment. It may seem a little out-of-place to thrown in such talk with a major battle about to take place, but it feels like this may be the last chance to have a conversation like this one (I won’t lie: my jaw dropped a few times during their conversation).

There also is another major revelation to be had, but like most stories we’ve seen in the series, this happens mere seconds before the story ends, leaving us on a cliffhanger ending.

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Best line from segment (said by Star Butterfly): “Okay, can we kiss?”

Final Grade: B

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Star Butterfly, in The Right Way): “Mewni has changed. And it’s NOT! CHANGING!! BACK!!!”

Well, it looks like the battle has begun. Next episode, some of the revelations we’ve seen here will be opened up a bit more, and we’ll see just where Mina is going to go with her threats to wipe out the monster population for good.

See you for my next review, on the second-to-last-episode for Star vs the Forces of Evil’s fourth season.

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 18) – Mama Star / Ready, Aim, Fire

Without warning, the last episode of Star vs the Forces of Evil, plunged us into what is surely the big ending storyline of season 4 (and the series!).

This episode continues that storyline, as we find ourselves encountering a number of threats to Mewni, that may make what Toffee attempted, seem like child’s play.

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– Mama Star –

Star, Marco, Tom, and Janna are surprised to find a hidden entrance to the Realm of Magic, underneath Echo Creek! With no other way to get back to Mewni, they take the plunge, but run the risk of losing their minds…and encountering something sinister.

The Realm of Magic has been both fascinating, and frustrating. It’s one of the places I keep expecting to learn more about, but we just get little glimpses of it, and with almost no answers given. Magic in many forms seems to function that way in the show: you’re never given a through line on how it all works.

After the last episode had some “okay” storylines, the direction this one goes in manages to balance between serious, and comedic…and a number of the comedy bits actually made me chuckle!

There’s some serious stuff happening in this place after the events at the end of last season, and it looks like it is going to have a major effect on things. Speaking of “major effects,” there are some things that are said in this story, that will probably make many fan’s faces light up…but whether they will have any bearing on our characters later on, that’s a mystery.

We’re still no closer to fully understanding the Realm of Magic, but this story managed to come off as one of the more entertaining ones that takes place within it’s confines.

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Best line from segment (said by Star Butterfly): “I need you to lead us through the magic to the Mewni well, and if you don’t, do you really want four goo-goo-brained teenagers who’ve lost their minds running around down here? Yeah, that’s right, we’re teenagers, we’re great at causing problems!”

Final Grade: B+

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– Ready, Aim, Fire –

After the events of the last segment, Star, Marco, and Janna have been scattered across Mewni (as for Tom, we have no clue).

This story functions as a “while you were away” segment, where we see that Mina Loveberry is planning to put her “take back Mewni for the Mewmans” plan into effect, using a massive suit of Solarian warrior battle-armor. Our characters are mainly operating on the sidelines here, acting as liaisons to show us what has happened in their absence.

Surprisingly, Janna is our eyes-and-ears for a good chunk of the segment, as she has arrived at the Monster Palace, just as the battle begins. It is also noteworthy that she stows away her snarky attitude for a good portion of the segment.

A highlight is seeing Globgor in action against Mina, though it doesn’t last long enough for my tastes. I had hoped we’d get to see more out of him after his introduction some time ago, but I guess my hopes were too high there.

Sadly, this story is not as emotionally engaging or as enjoyable as the last story, but maybe this is just to prep us for what is coming in the next episode.

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Best line from segment (said by River Johansen): “That’s okay! I didn’t want a hug too!”

Final Grade: B-

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Tom, in Mama Star): “Whoa…it is hot in here.”

Now that we’re back on Mewni, it looks like we’re all set to have a major, out-in-the-open battle that we haven’t ever seen committed to animation before. See you all back here for my next review.

 

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 17) – Sad Teen Hotline / Jannanigans

It’s been a little odd having Star Butterfly and Marco Diaz back on earth, after having spent quite a bit of time back on Mewni.

However, with 5 episodes to go before the end of the season (and the series altogether), it looks like the writers are revving up their engines, for the end.

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– Sad Teen Hotline –

Tom comes to visit Star on Earth, but while Star is excited to see him, Tom wants to speak to her about their relationship. Things get even more upsetting, when they find that they can’t communicate with, or get back to Mewni!

One thing I have often been interested in (and wish the writers would do more of), are these real-world connections when it comes to relationships. If you’ve been through one, you can clearly see that the persons who are writing this stuff, are putting their experiences into these characters.

There are extra bits of situational comedy worked into the story, though none of them really succeed in working that well. Probably the one that functions well enough, is Mr Diaz’s calling up the Sad Teen Hotline for comfort over Tom and Star’s relationship woes.

There are some decent bits of emotional drama interspersed throughout the story, but it feels like the emotional ennui drags on for a little too long.

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Best line from segment (said by Female Officer): “I’ve never known true happiness, ever since I got dumped over twenty years ago. I ‘m sad a lot.”

Final Grade: B-

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– Jannanigans –

Star, Marco, and Tom are still unable to return to Mewni via their magical conveyances. However, Star soon believes Janna may know a way to get them back. Unfortunately, Janna claims she doesn’t know how she got to Mewni recently, and leads her friends on a journey to jog her memory.

Earlier in the season, Janna suddenly appeared on Mewni without explanation. Given how most unexplained happenings on the show are shrugged off, this was definitely a surprise to me to see this brought up.

One fun moment is getting to see Janna’s home life, particularly her parents (which was definitely not what I expected to ever see, or experience!).

This segment even ends up tying into others we’ve seen, from one in the last episode, to another all the way back in season 3. That season 3 connection was one that I didn’t think was going to have any bearing on the future (though how Star in this scene is able to remember it, feels like some fact-fudging when it comes to the writer’s logic).

Even with those eye-opening connections, this just felt like a rather ‘meh’ Janna story. I sometimes figure Janna is the substitute Ponyhead at times, when the writers needed someone to be annoying to our characters on their quest, and throw a wrench into things.

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Best line from segment (said by Marco Diaz): “Janna, I didn’t realize how much this was affecting you. Plus, I didn’t realize that, you actually had, human emotions.”

Final Grade: C+

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Janna’s mother, in Jannanigans): “I hear Vancouver’s nice.”

Well, it seems like the final story arc of the series, has begun with this very episode! The inter-connectivity of the two segment storylines, seems to guarantee that this might be a story on par with The Battle for Mewni from season 3. We get some emotional turmoil and some surprising callbacks, but this episode has that thankless task of getting the ball rolling, leaving us to hope that where the story ends up, will be well worth it.

Next episode, we return to the Realm of Magic, in Mama Star. Then in Ready, Aim, Fire, a major skirmish begins to take place against Eclipsa. See you soon for the next review!

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 16) – Beach Day / Gone Baby Gone

Now that it seems Mewni is in good hands via Eclipsa and Globgor, Star is all set to just relax on earth with her best friend, Marco Diaz…or is she?

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– Beach Day –

Before The Battle for Mewni took place, Father Time gave Star an instant-camera picture of her and Marco, that was labeled “beach day.” The picture was taken some time in the future, and Star has been waiting to experience the day when the picture was taken. When she sees Marco’s father using an instant camera, she believes that day has finally arrived!

This is quite a fun situational episode. There’s some shades of The Banagic Incident here given how erratic Star is in trying to obtain her goal, but that actually helps make the story more entertaining. Plus, when some of her magic ends up not being compatible with the earth-dimension, she’s forced to handle a few issues like a normal girl.

Marco is kind of dragged along for the ride this time, but the writers manage to make him very entertaining. He obviously knows that the events in the photo mean a lot to Star, and like the old days, he wants to help his best friend have a good time.

It feels like a long time since there has been an 11-minute segment that felt so entertaining from start-to-finish. Most segments for SVTFOE have the habit of not getting good until the story is almost over. Here, there is such an enjoyable flow to the events, even within the last few minutes of the story,  where the logic of what happens may end up twisting viewers’ brains into pretzels.

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Best line in segment (said by Marco Diaz): “How much of my life would be affected by what I choose to do with my zit?…do I have free will?”

Final Grade: B+

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– Gone Baby Gone –

While babysitting both Meteora and his baby sister Mariposa, Marco is surprised when Hekapoo visits. Unfortunately, the portal she came through was left open in Mariposa’s room, and the two babies go through it!

Star and Marco follow, only to find that in the span of a few minutes on earth, the two babies have grown into teenagers in the other dimension, and formed a sisterly bond.

When it comes to adventures into the dimensions where Hekapoo dwells, these kinds of stories are the ones that have proven the most entertaining to me. From Running with Scissors to this one, it feels like there could still be even more entertaining stories to be told in this largely-unknown realm.

Much like how Marco experienced all sorts of (unseen) adventures, so too have Meteora and Mariposa. As they were so young when they first arrived, Star and Marco seem like strangers to them, and they seem somewhat untrusting of these newcomers. The story here feels like it could have been “borrowed” from some anime or manga, right down to the diva-ish baddie that our characters face off against. This type of villain feels rather unconventional, and I think that’s what makes his appearance here so enjoyable.

Just like Beach DayGone Baby Gone has an entertaining story from start-to-finish, and makes me wish we could have possibly gotten a few more stories out of Meteora and Mariposa’s time in this other dimension.

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Best line in segment (said by Meteora): “I don’t know why, but something about you…makes me angry!”

Final Grade: B+

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Brunzetta, in Gone Baby Gone): “Wait…did you summon me all the way out here just to ask for directions?”

After last episode’s rather ‘meh’ segments, this one proved to be quite surprising with it’s stories revolving around time and space. Beach Day delved into resolving a story element that was set in place all the way back at the end of the second season. Gone Baby Gone took a concept that I could never have conceived of, and took a number of characters on an adventure that just kept surprising me at every turn!

As we close in on the final five episodes of Star vs the Forces of Evil, one wonders how things are going to start winding down. Next episode, the first segment titled Sad Teen Hotline, deals with some issues that Tom has with Star. Then, in Jannanigans,we see Janna return to (hopefully) assist our group. See you back here soon!