Tag Archives: Spiritual Awakening in Movies

A Good Story Well Told

0HollywoodI thought I’d take some time to talk about what I look for when writing about movies, and where my thinking goes as a result.  I have always been a fan of great movies, but more importantly I am more attracted to good storytelling in cinema.  Looking back on the films I liked and disliked as a kid, I’ve found it rare that I would revisit a film I liked growing up only to find that the movie wasn’t in fact good at all.  A lot of times there are movies that do end up being absolute crap, but our nostalgic love for the film is what allows us to enjoy it even as adults.  To be honest, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying crap.  The movie may be terrible, but there are elements to the main characters journey, or sometimes there are particular elements to the film that draw us in, even if it was a terribly executed idea.

As a kid I was pretty lucky when it came to seeing movies.  I saw everything, and my parents were pretty liberal about the movies they took me to see.  I saw everything from G to R rated features.  The only movies my parents didn’t take me to were hard R rated films that featured an over abundance of language or we’re overly violent and scary.  I was never really big into slasher horror flicks or anything like that.  But other than that, I was exposed to a wide variety of storytelling.  This is where my own emotional intuition would kick in about whether I thought a movie was good or not.  It depended on how much a movie would captivate me and I would be along for the adventure.  Even if I didn’t fully understand the story, there would be some part of the film that would captivate me, like a problem the main character was having that I could identify with and the problem leads them on a personal quest.  I remember seeing a movie like Field of Dreams for instance and being drawn in by the haunting voice coming from the cornfields.  At the same time that child-like wonder and curiosity the main character would feel took hold of me.  I wanted to see where building this baseball field would take him and discover along the way the problems that would get in the way (for instance, the danger of losing all his money and his farm to find out where the voice was leading him).

My point being that great storytelling can captivate us on all levels.  You don’t need to be an adult to understand all aspects of a story.  But as a kid, even if I didn’t understand all the stuff that was over my head, I could tell whether a story was working or not simply by how much I engaged with the main character.  For all of us who knew movies that were great when we were young, such as the films of Steven Spielberg, these were films that never catered to children.  But as kids we were drawn in by the powerful, emotional journey of its main characters.  The kids that were in these movies acted like real kids and were believable.  A story in my opinion doesn’t have to be perfect plot wise.  I don’t always pay attention to the structure of the film.  But my main concern is if the main character has a problem I can identify with, and if the film challenges the character enough so they can find balance again by the end of the story.  Often times, I will watch a movie and see a character presented with a problem, but then the problem gets put on hold several times during the film while the action takes over.  In essence, if the conflict is not in support of the main characters problem, my feeling is that the story gets put on hold while the main character fights a bunch of bad guys.  Sometimes the story doesn’t take itself seriously enough for us to believe in what the characters are trying to accomplish.  I was terribly annoyed after seeing Iron Man 3, because the story kept reducing Tony’s problems into a joke, never giving us a chance to take seriously his panic attacks and PTSD.  None of these crippling problems ever plays a part when Tony is off fighting bad guys.  It never seems to stop him from getting the job done.  If we’re not going to see his personal problems affecting him on the job, how are we expected to care about what he’s going through?  Even the main villain that was advertised for the film as a serious threat is reduced to a comic buffoon.  It’s not the movie it was promised to be.

GQ When a film sets itself up for one thing and then takes us off course in a completely different direction, it looses me.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate spoilers or surprises that take the story in a new direction, but the surprise should be in support of the arc of the main character.  I find that spoiler “surprise” moments in big summer movies now are actually red herrings just to make the story appear more compelling than it actually is.  It has nothing to do with what the audience is going through, it’s a formulaic throwing a wrench in the machine, giving the film a bunch of twists and turns that just distract us from the fact that the story has nothing to say to begin with.  I can tell on an instinctive level whether or not a story is drawing me in, or if the main character has a compelling problem that I will want to see resolved (or even fails) in achieving their internal goals.

The other thing that is really important to me is that I like to see stories that end.  I’m not a fan of franchises because they are not written with the goal in mind to resolve the characters issues, but to keep the story going and going like a soap opera, where one aspect of the adventure might get resolved, and suddenly a new problem takes its place.  In this manner, the character loses his or her ability to find balance when their lives are written to always be out of balance.  I’m not speaking of the format of a TV series, where we are accustomed to this sort of writing, but even in a series, by the end of the show we hope the characters will find some sort of peace within themselves.  The same goes for movies.  A characters life can fall even more out of balance by the end of the story, or reach a dead end, but if we are not compelled by the journey they are taking, then we are simply watching characters go through the motions without an engaging driving force that makes us want to see them succeed.

When I am riding this emotional wave, it lets me know when a movie is going strong.  There is an honest sincerity to the character’s journey that enables me to connect with them.  In other words, it’s just good storytelling.  It’s also what keeps us coming back for more when we feel we can learn new things from re-experiencing the characters journey.  As a storyteller, these are not just the things I look for when watching a movie, it’s what I strive to accomplish in my own work.  A good story is one that’s well told.  Not one that is hampered by distractions.

Moviecappa One Year Anniversary!!

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Hot damn!  Moviecappa is One year old!  I missed it by two days, it was actually on May 10th, 2012 that I first started this site.  I for one am very grateful that I have kept this site going for that long.  I started this site because I have always had running commentary in my head when I go to the movies as well as when I see what goes on in the industry.  It’s a place for me to talk about why I think the movies are important, and what we can do to see them get better.  It’s also been my vision that this could be a place for filmmakers to come and talk about movies, and discuss the thing we want most out of them:  good storytelling.  This site was created out of passion, and I hope to see more discussion and bigger things to come for this site in the future.  If you have been an ongoing reader of the site, thank you so much for coming back and for your support!  Greater things are yet to come!  So stay tuned!

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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Dir. William Shatner

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After the popularity of Star Trek IV, it’s a shame that the most unpopular Trek film had to follow with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  For all intents and purposes it has to be said that, yes, Star Trek V is a terrible, awful film.  But I like it.  Yes, it’s pretty stupid, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy singing Row Row Row Your Boat.  Yes, the whole idea of the Starship on a journey to find God is pretty silly and redundant.  But for all its dumbness, I feel a certain nostalgic connection with this film.  My parents took me to all the other Star Trek films, but I was too young to remember them.  This is the first Star Trek feature I saw and actually remembered.  I was about 8 years old when this movie came out.  I knew enough to know it wasn’t a great movie.  But for what its worth I liked it.  And to this day, I think it’s a underrated.  I could watch this movie more times than the boring and long winded Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  It’s certainly more tolerable to me than the mediocre Star Trek: Nemesis.  This is definitely a crappy film.  But I did learn something while I was in film school…you are allowed to enjoy shit, as long as you recognize in the back of your mind its shit.  Star Trek V is a shitty film.  But I love it.

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I don’t know exactly on what level this movie appeals to me.  Maybe it’s the search for God aspect that I find intriguing.  I always found it funny that the Great Barrier might have supposedly been this far off place, but with the time they spend traveling it seems like it’s right on their back doorstep.  They’re also just as surprised when they manage to fly a starship through it.  You’d think somebody would have sent a probe in to analyze the interior.  Oh well.  There’s logic gaps galore in its story.  The main threat of the Klingons is some punk kid Klingon who for some reason has enough power to overrule his elder Klingon crew who clearly know he’s an idiot for trying to take on Captain Kirk.  There’s Sybok, whose power to mind control people is never really explained.  There isn’t really much in the way of character work either.  I don’t think anyone really learns anything from this experience, except for Sybok who finds out he was duped this whole time, and whose sacrifice doesn’t really do squat to stop the alien “God”.  I suppose you could say it’s the adventure nobody really asked for and it turned out nobody needed after all.  Nobody’s really on a search to renew their faith.  It’s basically an inconsequential haphazard Star Trek adventure.

But I think there has to be at least one Star Trek film that takes us into the realm of the silly idea.  After all, The Original Series was loaded with silly episodes (Spock’s Brain anyone?), or the one where we discover the Greek Gods are actually aliens that came to Greece long ago.  Tribbles.  Need I say more?  This is the one reason I like this film so much…because it is a silly pointless adventure.  I don’t think it really takes itself that seriously either.  It’s got the best, most silly line in all of Star Trek.  Kirks, “What does God need with a Starship?”  There is the one thing that I think keeps this film together in the spirit of Star Trek, and it’s the bonding between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.  For all the people who hate the sing a long campfire scene, it’s a silly scene yes.  But the friendship and bond between these men is true to the series.  Kirk brings up some sentiments that he keeps them around because he feels its his fate to die alone.  It’s why I find some charm in the end, after Spock saves Kirk from the alien presence at the end, Kirk says to Spock, “I thought I was going to die alone.” Spock: “Impossible.  You were never alone.”  These guys are family.

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It’s kind of funny too that the Enterprise falling apart seems like a perfect metaphor for this movie, where everything is broken and nothing really works right.  You almost have to wonder if this might have been a nod to the film itself.  To be just outright bad as a film is a gift that only The Original Series could bring.  You don’t find enough episodes that are bad in TNG, but worse they are just mediocre.  A mediocre film to me is far worse than a film that’s just straight bad.  With a mediocre film, there’s always a promising idea but poor execution and not firing on all thrusters.  A bad film will fire on all thrusters and wind up blowing up the ship.  Some films are just made that way.  But while the thing is going down in flames….it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride.

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This film was also getting near the end of the Original Series films, and you can see the cast was starting to wind down and probably wanted to make a film that didn’t have to be taken too seriously.  I actually think The Undiscovered Country has more of the “We don’t give a shit anymore” feel from the cast than this film does, despite having a better story.  But I always felt that I could take the worst Star Trek film over the worst Star Wars prequels any day.  At least there’s some attempts at acting in this movie.

Overall my consensus is, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a giant turd.  And what a beautiful, glorious flaming turd it is too.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Dir. Robert Wise

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On the heels of a new J.J. Abrams Star Trek film, I’ve decided that I’m going to watch and review all the Star Trek films in order, leading up to the release of the new film.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t have terribly high hopes for the new Star Trek just based on the advertising campaign, and I’m not really thrilled of the notion of showing a post apocalyptic version of Star Trek.  But it is Star Trek, and I am a fan, so will be seeing it.  Somehow watching all of the other films beforehand might help me build my immunity in case the new film is a travesty.  At any rate, I hope you enjoy this series leading up to the new films release!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a film I haven’t seen in a while and probably for good reason.  It’s easily the slowest and most difficult Star Trek film to sit through.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film though.  It’s got some interesting elements of science fiction, particularly the return of the Voyager spacecraft as an emerged consciousness.  This Trek film also sports the best model work out of all the Trek films (yes, even the new ones).  But the visual effects are part of the films difficulty as for many sequences we have to sit through what feels like several minutes just showing off the Enterprise, or even longer scenes of of the Enterprise moving through the alien spacecraft.  It’s all pretty to watch, but it feels like it drags the story to a snails pace, when our biggest concerns should be with the characters and their personal issues.

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Thankfully the film picks up after the arrival of Dr. McCoy, and Deforrest Kelly adds a lot of much needed lightness and humor.  This Star Trek film I found to be the most difficult to connect with the characters, in that so much time is spent in between the spectacle and trying to move the story forward that I felt it difficult to engage with any one characters issue.  It feels like we’re scattered equally among separate character motivations, and there isn’t anyone in particular that’s a driving force for the film.  Kirk is rusty behind the wheel of his ship, having not served as Captain for over two years.  His problems “competing” with Commander Dekker seem somewhat petty.  It’s not like Star Trek 2, where more attention is focused on Kirk’s aging and dealing with his mortality, as well as his usefulness to Starfleet.  This film taps into that a little bit, but I never get enough of the sense of Kirk leading the way here.

As for Spock, he’s got problems of his own, being turned down in a ritual to purge himself of all emotion.  Spock joins the mission to seek out this alien threat, which is based in logic, for his own search for meaning.  There is even some wonder among the crew if Spock’s personal ulterior motives might end up sabotaging the mission.    But again, there is a lack of drive in the story to give us more investment in the kind of mythological heroes journey he undergoes here.  It’s that lack of who and what to focus on that doesn’t do much to bring everything together by the end of the film.  There was something about Spock’s story that didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Why is this journey to find himself happening for him at practically middle age (ignoring for a moment the Vulcan’s prolonged lifespan)?  If this ritual of his to find his life purpose were happening at a younger age, maybe it would be understandable about what he’s going through to want to have all emotion purged.  But for a character like Spock to be struggling and moping that he doesn’t know who he is seems out of touch for the character we know who is wise beyond his years.  The message seems almost too obvious by the end of the film, about logic embracing with emotion and humanity.  This seems like something he would already know about himself, and if anything, he would have been put to more use serving as a guide for the Voyager entity to understand its purpose than trying to figure out his personal problems.

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One of the more interesting characters for me was Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), who holds his own as a commander, and thankfully the writers never stoop to giving him a cocky attitude by comparison to Kirk.  Decker actually makes all the right decisions when he knows more about the ships newer operations than Kirk.  However, we aren’t given enough time in the film to really feel much for his relationship with Ilia, especially to make their sacrifices at the end more powerful.  We get the two have a relationship and a history, but the film doesn’t do enough to explore it as there’s just too much else going on.  There just doesn’t feel like much behind the sacrifice to mean more than just the message of technology and humanity embracing.

I find it interesting that during this period with the rise of computer technology, there were many films that talked about the debate of whether technology would overrun us or if humanity would prevail.  We saw this previously with Star Wars with Luke having to shut off the machine and trust his instincts.  I’m also reminded of Tron and the image of Flynn at the end diving into the MCP, and the two merging to become one.  Although I think Tron makes a bigger connection thematically than Star Trek: The Motion Picture does.  This film also seems more bogged down in seriousness than other Star Trek films, which is why Bones is so desperately needed by the time he shows up.  The aging Trek crew doesn’t hit their stride until the next film came along, which makes this film, for me, the most difficult to sit through.  I know for most people they say Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the worst Trek, but I actually love that film.  I admit it’s a terrible film, but I actually love it for its stupidity and outrageousness, and most of all, to me, it’s still more fun than this film.  There’s plenty of dazzling visuals in this movie, and it achieves some of the greatest model work in motion picture history.  But the plodding, serious story, and too much time spent glamoring on visual effects shots over moving things forward gets in the way of what could have been a more fun and engaging science fiction story.

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Cinecon 49!

49film_couldhappenHey everyone!  Cinecon 49 is coming up soon!  For those who don’t know, Cinecon is a terrific classic film festival held every year at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and features fantastic prints of some rare Hollywood treasures, some of which are so good and yet currently unavailable on DVD.  This is your one place to see them!  The festival this year is held Labor Day weekend, from August 29th to September 2nd.  Already the site has updated with some of the films they will be showing this year. Check it out here!

Toy Story (1995) Dir. John Lasseter

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I took a great class yesterday from Marshall Vandruff, a terrific artist and teacher. The class was a Visual Storytelling Analysis of the film Toy Story, where we went through the entire film, stopping after each sequence and discussing the story structure and emotional line of the film. It was an absolutely terrific seminar. I wanted to talk a little bit about Toy Story as a film in general, because it really is such a great, well told story.  This is a film where the story was allowed to be what it should have been.  There was a tremendous amount of searching to find the film this would eventually become, but this movie turned out to be the ultimate game changer for animation.  What’s even more astounding is that this film does not feel dated in the slightest.  While the animation and visuals would technically be considered “primitive” to what CG films can do know, Toy Story was still approached with a wonderful artistic eye, and the visuals are still just as wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it was when it first premiered.

I was 14 when Toy Story first came out.  From what I do remember about seeing the film, I remember how much I liked it although I didn’t know the impact it would have that one day CG would completely take over the animation field.  I never saw myself wanting to go into a career in CG after this, but I saw it as the use of a different medium.  The story was great, and the film itself was a lot of fun.  There was one particular scene that hit me pretty hard when I first saw it, and still today it’s my favorite scene in the whole film.  It’s basically the fall of Buzz Lightyear when he discovers that he’s not a space ranger, just “an insignificant stupid little toy”.  It’s his fall from grace and his discovery that the world was never what he imagined it would be.  The scene I refer to in this is where Buzz and Woody are talking in the middle of the night at Sid’s house and Woody is trying to get Buzz to help him escape.  Buzz just sits their alone with his sad line, “I can’t help.  I can’t help anybody.”  It’s been a few years since I’ve watched this film, but yesterday as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this sequence.  Not in a heavy depressed way, but as the scene plays out, the two of them have reached a penultimate moment where they couldn’t get any lower and two guys that were once enemies finally reach common ground.  It’s a beautiful scene.  And when Buzz finally sees the words “Andy” on his shoe and gets the message that there is a new, better life for him out there, you see a character that finds bliss in that moment.

There’s a lot of great visual storytelling devices in this movie.  I’ve always liked the opening sequence with Andy playing with his toys.  The camera is always kept at the Toy’s point of view, even though they are in “play mode”, meaning they don’t move.  When we’re introduced to Woody, who appears to us as just an ordinary toy, the camera keeps everything so that we see what he sees in his head, from going down the stair railing to spinning in the chair with Andy.  One of the interesting things that was pointed out when I was in the class was an idea that started out as a cliche joke and goes on to become an important part of the story.  The scene starts with the army men going to investigate the new birthday presents Andy is getting.  After one of them gets crushed, the wounded soldier shouts out “Go on without me!” to which the Army captain returns and says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!”  This theme is echoed through to the final sequence in the film, where twice Woody and Buzz make self sacrifices for each other.  For instance, the first time Buzz is caught in a fence as the moving van is leaving, and he shouts to Woody, “Go on, I’ll catch up”, to which Woody who is right at his moment of victory, decides to jump down and help Buzz.  Then the second time it happens, Woody’s leg is caught in the dogs mouth and he cries out to Buzz, “Take care of Andy for me!”, to which Buzz shouts No! and jumps on the dog, pulling up and snapping its eyelids.

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From a structural standpoint it was interesting to see how so many different elements are set up and paid off later in the movie.  The story structure of this film is a solid as they come.  The sequels were never quite the same when it came to this film, and one of the things I enjoyed about this film was Mr. Potato Head, who is much more of a smart ass, and while he’s not a villain, he is a bit more of an antagonist figure here.  A part of it is that he’s somewhat jealous of Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy, and manages to convince the other toys not to let Woody come back to them after what he did to Buzz.  While Potato Head makes some good points, at the same time, you can’t help but feel his motives are a little ulterior even if he’s not conscieous about what he’s doing.  There’s a part of him that already wants Woody to go away anyway, just because Woody decided to be self-proclaimed leader of the toys.  Potato head even gets a bit of comeuppance at the end of the film when the race car flies into him and his body parts scatter all over the place.  And then of course, he gets a happy ending when he finally gets Ms. Potato Head!

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I’ve always had problems with the sequels for this film, because to me the idea of the toys getting replaced because their masters grew up or moved on…for some reason that story was never important to me.  It’s almost like it comes to a shock to all the toys that their master is going to grow up, when I think if every toy before hand had to deal with this, you’d think toys would have some plan or initiative on what to do when they had to move on to another master.  You’d think instead of “holding on” to each other, that one day they would split up and move on to other people, and one day eventually end up in the trash pile.  But that’s just what their existence is.  It seems like they’re not okay with the idea of dying or moving on.  I was more interested in the first Toy Story because it dealt with the toys dealing with ordinary problems that we can relate to as people.  The jealousy of a new toy coming into the picture when Buzz arrives, which angers Woody, is very human and a story we can all relate to when somebody comes into our lives we didn’t ask for and we don’t know how to deal when that person comes in with newer or more impressive ideas than the old toy.  Some of the aspects we talked about in this film were the metaphors about how the space race came in during the 60’s and took over when before every kid was interested in cowboys and Indians and then suddenly everyone was into space and astronauts.  All of this helps to build on a great rivalry with the characters.

Toy Story will always be one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs.  The story is so solid as well because the filmmakers had no choice but to go in that direction.  They had to accept and allow the story to unfold and be what it wanted to be.  It’s disappointing to me that the rest of the Pixar films (at least everything after The Incredibles) couldn’t be as on par and allow their films to bloom in the way that Toy Story does.  It’s just a great solid film, and one of my favorite animated films ever made.

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How The Iron Giant Changed Me As A Human Being

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This may surprise some people (even those who know me personally), but I have actually known who Brad Bird was for most of my life, long before I even saw The Iron Giant for the first time.  I was first exposed to his name when I was 8 and The Simpsons first came on, for which Brad served as Executive Consultant, and on occasion director for at least two 1st season episodes.  My parents have been taking me to the movies since I was a baby, and because my dad worked in the film business, we always stayed for the end credits.  Even at an early age I started to recognize names that would show up again and again.  Not just big names like Steven Spielberg, but I’d catch on to actors, writers, directors who would frequently show up.  I recognized Brad’s name from The Simpsons simply because I thought Brad Bird was kind of a funny name.  Over time, I started watching The Simpsons, and Brad was responsible for directing the season 1 classic episode, Krusty Gets Busted, where Krusty the Clown is framed for robbing a convenience store, and it was the introduction to the villainous Sideshow Bob.  It’s a funny episode for many reasons, one of them being that once Krusty’s goofiness is behind bars and Sideshow Bob takes over, he turns the show into an overly-intellectual droll literary hour.  But it’s a great episode and it got my attention as a kid.  After awhile I started to discover more of Brad’s work, eventually seeing Family Dog, the animated short film from Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series, and I began to think, “man, this guy’s pretty good.”

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But everything changed for me on August 6th, 1999.  It was the day The Iron Giant was released into theaters.  I was 17 years old at the time.  There was some pretty bland advertising surrounding the film.  As most of us know, the film bombed at the Box Office in part because of Warner’s failure to properly market the film.  But I didn’t have doubts going in, because I had heard Brad Bird was directing it, and from what I knew of the past works he had done, there was a chance the movie was going to be good.  By the time the end credits rolled, the word “good” for this film was an understatement.  Even “great” seemed low on the scale for a film like this.  At the time when I saw this movie, it was the single most life changing film I had ever seen.  It shattered all my expectations of what I thought an animated film should be.  It was a film so beautiful, so powerful in its message, story, and animation, that I never looked at animated films the same way again after this.  Before this film, I had been a Disneyite.  I based much of what I wanted for myself as an animator, like many people, through Disney films.  Pixar had not yet established itself, although Toy Story came out before The Iron Giant and I loved that movie.  But it was in no way the pinnacle life altering film that The Iron Giant would become for me.  Before when I was into Disney movies I had my sights set on becoming an animator and working for Disney as one.  After I saw The Iron Giant, I decided I wanted to become a storyteller,  a director, and a filmmaker.  The thing that attracted me the most to this film were its moments of darkness.  The Giants transformation into a killing machine is frightening and real, and it shook me out of my skin when I saw the sequence played out.  This was a character that had suddenly lost all hope in himself.  This is someone who lost all faith in the world and turned on a murderous spree.  True, in the movie, we never see the Giant actually kill anyone because the consequences would be too great and there would be no turning back for him if he actually ended someones life.  It’s only Hogarth who manages to stop him and bring him back from the abyss.  But what that sequence also showed me was the things you could do in animated films that Disney could not go.  There were people who already knew this if you had watched a lot of Japanese Anime, which tackles far more serious adult subjects for animation.  But this was the first American animated feature I had seen that was a family film, but took on serious adult themes, with serious consequences attached to the characters actions.  The Giant’s nightmarish transformation was unlike anything I had seen in an animated film.  It made me want to tackle darker themes in my own work and my own storytelling.

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My sense of humor has always been on the dark side, as have been the themes I wanted to explore in films.  In a way, it always felt edgy and cool to me because American Animation rarely ever tackled these areas, or at least, they used to until after The Little Mermaid came out, and it’s like it all suddenly stopped because everyone had their eye on animation as a moneymaker, and nobody wanted to do anything that would scare children and families away.  What’s interesting is the Iron Giant helped me unlock my love for films I saw growing up as a kid that were filled with dark themes, such as Pinocchio, The Adventures of Mark Twain, The Secret of Nimh.  Even films like The Brave Little Toaster had plenty of moments with frightening imagery, and it was great because these movies were never afraid to scare kids.  The simple truth is, unlike what most adults want to believe, kids love to be scared.  It’s not about always protecting our children, because as kids…the thing is…what frightens us also intrigues us at the same time.  Scary images are burned into our skull because it forces us to ask ourselves why the images frighten us.  What is it about watching an animated character in serious peril, or being attacked by a giant monster that makes us want to know where that monster inside us comes from.  It frightens us because we know that monster exists in all of us, and we see it exposed when we watch a film that traumatizes our minds.  I was much older when I saw The Iron Giant, but the killing spree frightened me just the same, knowing that myself or anyone that I loved could become a killer, or could be knocked off course from wanting to be the beautiful soul that they are.

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The soul however is the deeper layer to what The Iron Giant is.  I watched a seminar once taught by voice actor, Crispin Freeman, entitled Giant Robots and Superheros, which analyzed the mythological aspects and cultural differences where the Japanese like to write stories about Giant Robots and Americans like stories about Superheroes.  The Iron Giant brings the best of both worlds and takes it a step farther.  Here is the notion of a giant robot having a soul.  A machine having a soul and wanting to be more than it’s limitations.  It’s interesting because at the same time this film came out, there was another film that examined this aspect, called The Matrix.  That was another film combining machines and spirituality, where in that case the machines became self aware and wanted to turn against humanity, and the human, Neo discovers in his avatar form that he can bend the Matrix to his will, and eventually merging with it.  The Iron Giant is more family fare than the darker Matrix films, but at the same time the human element finds its way into The Giant.  Through his own spiritual journey he finds not only mentorship through a 9 year old boy, he also discovers Superman, and discovers in himself that is what he wants to be, an empowered being who uses his abilities for goodness in a harsh world.  The giant instantly relates to Superman because he is also misunderstood by those around him who fear him as a threat.  He is conflicted by his machine body, his ego telling him what he really is, which is an engine for destruction.  But he finds he doesn’t want to be that at all.  He wants to grow beyond everything he was designed for.

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There was a story where during the finale of the film when the Giant sacrifices himself to save the town, somebody in a story meeting for the film asked why didn’t the Giant just take one of his rockets and destroy the missle from a safe distance.  Brad’s point was that the Giant wouldn’t do that because it would mean turning himself into a gun, which is not what he wants to be.  The message, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, becomes the center of the Giants whole purpose of being.  When I heard those words for myself as a teenager, it became the center of my own being as well.  They were powerful words I wanted to live by.  It led me down a hard road later in college, because I found myself drifting from the Disney animation status that I thought I wanted from the beginning.  I discovered that I came into conflict with my own desires as an artist when animation was suddenly not as important to me.  I have always had to struggle with my drawing, I couldn’t keep up with my peers at the time, and overall it made it a struggle for me when I felt I wanted a job vs. what I wanted for myself.  In a funny way, I could take The Iron Giant as an example of someone going through the same thing, as he was a being that was in conflict with what he was built for vs. the being he wanted to become, in a decision made on his own.  He fights and struggles because his body that he was built to be wants to keep him down and conformed, but his “soul”…and his awakening into his own being is the thing that transforms him and makes him the defining hero he always wanted to be.

What I have learned from this film, and what it has taught me has always been about following your guiding light…your intuition and your spirit to become the person you’ve always wanted to be.  This includes deciding how you want to approach your career, what you want to contribute to humanity, deciding the people you want to fall in love with, deciding what you want to take a stand for and what is most important to you.  It’s never about following a particular crowd or a religion because many times a religion forces you to fall back on your own body.  On the one end, its meant to keep you safe and keep you grounded.  But it can also keep you afraid an in the dark from the person you always want to become.  It can also tell you there is no other way except what is meant to keep you in line and in fear of following your path.  They are the voices in your head telling you not to go off into the woods because they are dangerous, they are full of turmoil, and you can damage yourself far greater when you let go of a chosen belief.  The conflict comes when you do go out into the woods, and the voices in your head are constantly telling you to come back, that you are putting yourself in danger and that you cannot survive on your own.  It’s why in The Iron Giant, when the Giant thinks Hogarth is dead and all is lost that he falls back on his “machine” life and turns into a weapon of destruction.  He doesn’t know yet that the choice is always within him, but because he lost Hogarth, there was no one left to make the choices for him accept himself.  And that can be a frightening thing.  When we hear the words, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, it is exactly that.  There is no fear in deciding on the person you want to become.  We can get angry and conflicted when we suddenly find so many voices making the choices for us that we don’t want there anymore, which is what can lead to anger and a need to strike back.

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After I saw The Iron Giant, I wrote Brad two letters.  The first one I wrote to him because I was about to become an Eagle Scout.  I asked him in a letter to send me a congratulatory card with my Eagle Scout packet.  When you reach that level as a boy scout, you can ask for congratulatory letters from The President, Senators, or people you admire.  Brad’s card was the most important one in there, because for me having accomplished becoming an Eagle Scout, his card defined the person I wanted to become.  Brad has always been that symbol in my mind and my hero for all time and I have continued to aspire to be the image of what Brad is to me and the person I want to be.  He’s my “Superman” so to speak.  Later on I wrote Brad a second letter just asking him about being a director and how to become one, and he returned with a 2 page letter reply talking about schools, and what it’s like to be a filmmaker.  He even ended the letter with the simple words, that no matter where you go or where you end up, never forget the sage advice of young Hogarth Hughes, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”.

What is the film that most defines you as a person or as a filmmaker?  I think we all have it in us.  The Iron Giant was that film for me.  It made me want to be more than the sum of what people in everyday life expected from me.  I had to have faith in myself first to find that place for me and decide this is what I want.  The search continues throughout our lives as we go from one thing to another, working to follow our path until we find the direction that most defines the person we want to be.  It’s what we spend our whole lives searching for, choosing to be who we want to be no matter where the world drops us.  It’s up to you to decide what is most important for you and whether your own path is guiding you there.  If it isn’t, it could be time for a self examination to get yourself on track.  If you can do that, however, that you will discover that the universe is putting you in alignment, and the life you always wanted for yourself will have been laid out for you all along.

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Paying Attention To What Your Children Watch

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This is something I’ve struggled to say for awhile, and I’m sure there are plenty of you die hard Disney lovers who will give me hell for saying it.  But I’m going to try and explain in the best way I can why I think The Little Mermaid is a terrible film.  It is.  I have hated this film since I was a little kid.  I have been angry for awhile now how The Walt Disney Company started off back in the day as something so great only to fall apart and take the dark path because of the success of single film.  The Little Mermaid, to me, is the movie that destroyed Disney Animation.  When I was a kid I not only hated the film, I was too emarassed to tell anyone how much the movie upset me.  It was my worry that people would make me out as some kind of self centered egotist for not understanding why a movie that was so successful and loved by so many people, as Ariel would say “…could be bad”?  I am worried about what kids will take away with them when they watch a movie like this. Ariel, in my opinion, is a selfish spoiled brat who doesn’t know who she is.  She then falls for an innocent guy who also doesn’t know who he is.  Ariel doesn’t listen to her father, who tells her to stay away from humans for her own personal safety.  But if Ariel doesn’t listen to anything her father tells her, what makes us think she’s going to listen to Eric when he has something to say?

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I actually think in the movie’s story, Ariel’s father is innocent in this whole mess.  It’s not his fault with what happens to her.  The film tries to blame him as being too stubborn and pig headed, and wants us to believe he should just let his daughter go because she’s “following her dreams” and wants to “be herself”.  But the fact is, Ariel knows nothing about how the world works.  She has absolutely no discipline for herself, and quite frankly her friends aren’t any help either.  Who do we see her hanging around with all the time?  A 12 year old kid ?(Flounder)  Why doesn’t a girl her age have any girlfriends?  She seems like she’d be pretty and popular enough.  If you want to try and make sense of it, imagine of this were a live action movie about a teenager.  Why would she spend all her time with a 12 year old when she’s trying to figure out how to get laid?  It’s like spending all your time with your little brother. So what about Sebastian, then?  He tries to help her more than anyone, to the point of even singing a catchy Oscar winning song about why this thing with Eric is not going to work out and that she should stay Under the Sea.  He’s right.  He’s right the whole time.  She abandons her father who only loves her and wants what’s best for her.  She runs off to the most untrustworthy drug dealer in town (Ursula)  trading her “voice” for ecstasy…I mean legs…that will make her “human” so she can meet and fall in love with Eric.  But then she gets into trouble when she blows the whole thing, dragging first her friends into her problems, then her father, who has to turn over his entire kingdom and get himself turned into a kelp pol-lop so his daughter can be saved, and then finally getting Eric involved to fight and kill a gigantic Ursula for her.  At the end of the film her father forgets everything his daughter just put him through and decides to reward her for being selfish and spoiled by giving her ecstasy (I mean legs) so she can go on and live happily ever after with her new chump husband Eric, who apparently never got the memo that every time he hangs around this girl, the threat of getting himself killed increases.  If you need more convincing, just look at the people she associates with!  Power hungry drug dealer witches?  A clueless father?  An angry crab she never listens too?  A 12 year old boy?  Who is this girl??

I saw this movie the first time when I was 8 years old.  Admittedly at that age you’re not going to understand all the things that are wrong with a movie, except that if it’s entertaining and you’re having a good time that’s all that really matters to you.  Well, it wasn’t enough for a person like me later on when I started watching the films I liked at the time (or thought I liked) and then realizing these movies were not good for me at all!  The Little Mermaid in particular made me crazy and upset because when the end of the film came, I was so terrified and embarrassed of the giant Ursula scaring me that I had to keep it all inside.  I kept it inside out of fear of being ridiculed by my then classmates in 2nd grade who all loved the film, because lets face it, admitting you were terrified from a Disney film at that age isn’t exactly cool.  I had to hide it from my friends, and this terrifying nightmare of a film always stuck with me.  I feared as well the mean-spiritedness from others who would laugh me off to the side if I admitted the film scared me.  I had no idea how to handle a movie like this at all, and nobody to help me during that time.  So I had to figure it all out on my own.

It’s not that I’m mad at these people, its just perpetuated ignorance from all parties involved, including the filmmakers.  I’m certain they had no real intention of frightening or upsetting young kids.  But at the same time it’s the filmmakers themselves who could not see that the story might be going in a bad direction.  This is not a good movie.  It’s not a good movie because it teaches children all the wrong things to expect out of life.  You have to look at the original Anderson tale to understand what the story was really trying to say.  In the actual story of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid dies.  She dies because her own ignorance and self righteousness catches up with her, and it happens when the prince decides he’s not in love with her and runs off to marry somebody else.  She fails, and she’s turned into salt water.  The message of that story is what happens when we gamble our lives, when we are willing to risk giving up our existence over a petty infatuation.  The original story shows us how dangerous that can be.  It’s dangerous to give into our emotional impulses without consulting with someone or ourselves to know if this is the right choice.  The movie flops the message completely saying now that you will get what you want if you gamble your life on something that might not turn out the way you expect.  In the movie Ariel never learns anything from her experience.  Somehow we’re supposed to believe the lesson is that she had to learn to get along with her father.  But her father isn’t on her mind at all during the whole time she’s human.  During the scenes where Ariel is human on land, we cut away at one point where Triton discovers Ariel had run away and he’s afraid and upset, feeling guilt for shouting at her.  We cut back to Ariel, and she’s having the time of her life not giving her father a second thought that she might be worrying him or feeling guilty that she’s upsetting him.  She just wants to snag her prince.  At the end her father has to sacrifice his life and his power and kingdom to save her, and what happens after the witch dies and everything is back to normal?  He lets her go.  Which if you think about it was probably the smartest move on his part, because now the problems of his daughter are dumped on somebody else, and since Triton lives in the ocean and Ariel’s been changed into the human, she won’t be making any visits to daddy anytime soon, at least until somebody invents diving equipment to she can go to the kingdom and visit her father.  So unless he really wants to show up to the surface and change her back into a mermaid, he could do it but why would he want to anyway if he really feels he failed his daugther?  If anything, call it a happy ending for Triton and a sad depressing ending for Eric who now gets to find out on his own what a selfish washout Ariel really is.  Triton at least can now move on with his life, knowing that he at least did something right with his 6 other daughters, who would never selfishly run out on him.  So in that sense, we gotta give Triton credit that he actually probably is a good honest guy (and a good father) just trying to make the best of his situation.  It’s not really that Triton’s a control freak, and it’s not like his rules about merfolk staying in the ocean are part of a dictatorship.  The guy does it to keep his people safe, so nobody else will get hurt.  So of course when Ariel botches things up, and Triton is forced  to turn his power over to Ursula, making her dictator/ ruler of the ocean, fucking over an entire kingdom because of one selfish girl who wanted to get laid by a boy…I think we can start to see now how crazy this movie really is.  And we can start asking ourselves how movies like The Little Mermaid are influencing our children.  How will a movie like this influence your children as teenagers when they get angry and decide to turn against you for their own selfish needs?

Yet, this is the movie that “saved” Disney from falling apart.  It wasn’t because it was a good story.  It wasn’t because the message was so important.  It was because Disney knew exactly all the right buttons to push in its audience.  They knew exactly what they could sell to an audience to make them believe the story was speaking to them in a way that sounded like it was important, when it wasn’t really at all.  This film set up all the tactics used by filmmakers in animation from here on, when it came to manipulating audiences with wonderful songs, silly sidekick characters, and so on….all the elements that trick you into thinking this movie is an important event.  It’s not that way at all.  We allow ourselves to be taken in by it because of our backgrounds, because of our belief systems, because of everything we were told by our parents or what other people tell you you’re supposed to like about movies, animation, TV, film, etc. and never actually thinking for yourself that this kind of story might not be good for you or your kids who eat this stuff up on a daily basis.  I don’t think people should be made angry by the fact that the entertainment industry is manipulating your children to seeing the world as if it’s just like the Disney Channel.  But there comes a time when all kids need to learn to grow up, and wake up to their surroundings, their parents, their family, their friends, and even their own children when they have them.  Your kids are made to think that protagonists like Ariel and every other Disney Princess is noble and dignified in their decisions to be free and be the person they want to be.  But sadly, those princess thoughts about what it means to be free comes from a place of arrogance and selfish desire.  It’s all the things that will blind kids from the real truth about themselves and their world.  Many filmmakers making content for children in America are failing at their jobs are storytellers.  Not everything they make is bad, there are still some movies and shows made that are spectacular stories.  But it’s a problem because kids don’t know any better about what their watching.  The filmmakers don’t know any better either about what they’re trying to say because their own belief systems about the world are blinding them when they tell their own stories to other people.

Ever notice now in a lot of children’s programming, it’s becoming more prevalent with adult themes, even if the themes are not appropriate for children or a children’s show?  You can watch something like Adventure Time for instance, which is a a show that, quite frankly, has no idea what it’s audience is supposed to be.  Kids laugh at the goofiness of it, but miss out on all the themes, which are not targeted at them at all and are trying to talk more to adults.  That show would probably be better off as an Adult Swim kind of series.  But you look at the majority of the shows that are doing this, and it’s frustrating.  When I watch animated films, all the messages they want to communicate are adult messages, but they’re so convoluted in making the thing for kids the filmmakers don’t know who or what their aiming at when they think they’re trying to speak to adults and teenagers.  You will notice however that when you look at Japanese Animation, they have a very clear definition as to what’s for adults and children.  You just have to look at the films of Hayao Miyazaki, who has made movies for every age group, speaking DIRECTLY to that age group.  All of his films are wonderful and beautifully told, and the messages of those films are understandable and clear to their audience age group.  What happened in America was when a movie like The Little Mermaid came along, it may have been a whopping box office success, but it made things confusing for everyone about how we should tell stories for animation. When you look at animation that was produced before The Little Mermaid in the 80’s, it may not have been perfect, but those filmmakers at least knew who their audience was.  The Secret of Nimh, The Last Unicorn, Rankin/Bass, Heavy Metal, The Adventures of Mark Twain, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  I even like to give credit to movies like The Black Cauldron, a film that Disney like’s to consider a bad wart on their list of films, but the one thing we can admire about that movie is it it had balls.  It tried to do something different, and it was Disney’s attempt to try and make something more adult.  The same happened with Atlantis and Treasure Planet.  It’s not that any of those films were a bad idea, but what happened is that Disney wasn’t willing to let go of their child audience, and as a result those movies failed because there were too many mixed messages to its audience members.  So if you’re a filmmaker and you are watching these movies, it’s a good idea to ask yourself who the movie is  for, and what is it supposed to be about?  You can tell it’s a problem when you can’t answer those two questions by the end of the movie.  It’s not a bad thing if you cant answer the second question if the movie has a lot of themes running through it.  But if you are watching a film where the message should be obvious, you need t ask yourself again if you were actually receiving the intended message.  In most cases, you may not be.  Yet this is what plagues many animated films made in America.  For many of us as audience members, we may come up with our own personal reasons for why these movies are supposed to be great.  But when we don’t want to face what’s really there,  we make up many reasons in our heads to justify to others why these movies are supposed to be good. But they might not be.

This is just my own personal feeling as to why animation today is bad for our children.  We have an important job as storytellers, and it’s not about raising kids on our own personal bias’ or religious beliefs.  What it is about, being a storyteller, is finding that center place that communicates directly with your audience.  The power of every great story are the things we all carry with us through life.  Every great movie you love that everyone can agree on (a movie like Star Wars for instance) has a message that resonates with everyone inside.  It speaks to us all as people and the true life adventure experiences that every individual faces.  It’s not simply about getting what you want all the time for selfish reasons, it’s about teaching others to get what they want out of life, so that other people can see the amazing person they are inside and inspire those people to find the things they want most in life on their own, and in turn share the same feeling with others.  It’s the worlds most powerful butterfly effect.  Story isn’t just about teaching you how to surviving in this world, it’s about teaching others to find their own path in life, and finding your place in the world as a human being.  And it’s not all happy endings, sometimes we have to show the bad stuff too!  Because showing a bad end teaches children and adults in a safe way not to take that path in life, and what happens when we stop listening to the universe and believe ourselves to be alone in this world.  The truth is, you’re never alone at all, even if you happen to be by yourself at the time.  That’s what great storytelling teaches you and the tremendous power it has to help people find their way.  Pay attention to the stories you watch, especially the ones being told to your children.