Redefining Traditions and Expectations: Turning Red

Turning Red is Disney Pixar’s latest theatrical animation, and its focus on life as an Asian middle schooler hits close to home. Like many Asians from North America, I was a kid who took overachieving to heart due to my upbringing. I wasn’t dedicated as some of my peers, mind, but it was enough that getting a B+ used to summon deep and gut-wrenching dread. But when I looked at TV and movies, it was clear that characters who were like me were few and far between, and the ones who did appear were often relegated to support characters even when factoring out physical appearance. 

This has changed over time, with the mainstream rise of the “nerd” and protagonists like Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic carrying a similar energy, but that particular cocktail of emotions shared by so many of Asian descent remained a rarity. That’s why I was so taken by the heroine of Turning Red, Meilin Lee. A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian from Toronto, her story is the latest in a line of works addressing generational trauma—and one of those symptoms is the way that Asian kids are expected to get those straight A’s, learn piano and violin, get into a good college, have a successful career, have a family and kids, and on and on. 

Yet, the key is that the pressure placed upon us does not come from malice, neglect, or simple fear of ruining family reputation, but rather from what is practically the opposite. For our elders who had to endure unbelievable hardship, they do not want us to suffer as they did, yet the context in which many of us are raised is so fundamentally different that it creates inherent tensions.

The way Turning Red pursues this complex relationship through Meilin is nothing short of brilliant and powerfully relatable. Within her is a turbulent embrace of both 2002 North American pop culture (boy bands!) and the traditional culture of her parents, and the way they merge and split and get thrown into the blender feels so much like what I experienced as a kid and still do today. It’s a film where I instantly saw myself—not simply because it’s about Asians but because it tells a personally familiar story in a way that assumes that such experiences are natural and common.  

Encanto Is Too Real

The Madrigal family from Encanto in a group photo

Encanto gave me an existential crisis, a first for a Disney film.

Its story centers around a family with supernatural powers called the Madrigals who have been the spiritual center of their town for generations. Each member of the Madrigals is bestowed a “gift” by a magic candle when they come of age, going all the way back to the family matriarch, Abuela (“Grandmother”), who received the candle through some unknown miracle while escaping from her hometown—and through the noble and tragic sacrifice of her beloved husband. The protagonist of the story is Mirabel, one of Abuela’s granddaughters, who is the only Madrigal to not have a gift. But when Mirabel begins to see what looks like a premonition about the destruction of their house and their magic, she takes action to solve the mystery, and in doing so, learns more about her family than she—or anyone else—ever knew.

The story of the “non-special” person who is surrounded by incredibly talented people and goes on to do big things doesn’t seem all that unique, and plenty of similar narratives never felt like a chest-wrenching experience to me. But the way in which the genuine mutual love between Mirabel and her family carries a vein of patronizing concern over Mirabel’s lack of conventional ability (by Madrigal standards) hits a little too close to home. It’s that complicated extra layer underpinning the interactions between Mirabel’s immediate and extended family, where a desire to help Mirabel ends up hurting by inadvertently reinforcing the idea that she’ll never be good enough, which makes the film wallop like a sack full of bricks.

But the film also has plenty of joyful highs, especially as Mirabel gradually breaks through the invisible barriers that obfuscate the state of her relatives’ emotional wellbeing. The emphasis on family is anything but shallow, and the simple yet profound truths about every character lend credence to the idea that the notion of the ideal and picturesque Madrigals is neither entirely true nor entirely false. The pressure to live up to greatness is heavy. And as for the eponymous uncle from the film’s hit song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” for me his story strikes closest to home.

What is also eminently relatable as someone who is descended from immigrants who had to basically start anew in an unfamiliar land is the story of the cultural gap that forms as each successive generation must deal with the challenges that lie ahead. Abuela’s priorities are the result of the circumstances that shaped her, and it makes me reflect on my own ancestors’ hardships—though not without pondering why the generational divide can be so very steep. 

I don’t hate Encanto for making me feel all sorts of ways. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a powerful and authentic rollercoaster of emotions that reflect a family with a complex history, and I appreciate that a lot. I think it can sometimes be easy to think that those who have those feelings of inadequacy brought upon by familial pressure are alone, and it’s comforting to see such a story play out on so grand a stage.

There’s More to Life: Pixar’s Soul

Soul, the latest CG animated film from Disney and Pixar, speaks to me on a very deep and personal level. It’s not just that it’s about an older minority protagonist who chafes at family pressure when it comes to doing what’s safe and expected. Nor is it that the movie is set in New York City, where the familiar sights and sounds make me oddly nostalgic in a time when stepping foot outside can be a stressful decision in itself. What really hits home is one of the core messages of Soul, which is to be aware of how we as people often confuse inspiration, passion, purpose, and fulfillment—and how doing so can hold us back in life in fundamental ways.

The story of Soul follows Joe Gardner, a black middle-aged middle school music teacher who still dreams of being a professional jazz musician (the long overdue first black protagonist in a Pixar film). When a rare opportunity to play with one of the greats comes knocking, an ecstatic Joe gets caught in an accident that causes his soul to leave his body. Desperate to avoid the afterlife and get back to the land of the living (and his gig), he winds up as the mentor to 22, a soul that for thousands of years has failed to find the spark to become a full-fledged living being, and who sees her pre-life to be much more appealing than life on Earth.

Whether it’s Joe’s firm belief that his purpose in life is to play jazz, or the pre-life system that brings history’s greats in as mentors to guide those like 22 to begin life, Soul highlights the way people often think about what it means to live a great life. We celebrate those who follow their passion and transform them into monumental discoveries and achievements. We think having a greater purpose is the key to reaching greater heights. But just as Joe throughout the film is often so obsessed with his life-long aspiration that he fails to see the positive influence he gives (and receives) from those around him, it’s all too easy to feel like a failure when we focus only on destinations and not journeys.

Although I don’t see myself as being in a completely similar position to Joe, Soul made me realize something: for whatever reason, I often feel a lingering sense of guilt over not accomplishing more than I should have, or was supposed to. On a certain level, it can feel ridiculous. I’m at least fairly proud of the things I’ve managed to see and do in my life, achievements that I know took intelligence, dedication, and maybe even a bit of courage. Yet, I still see myself as rarely having ever gone the distance that can leave myself without any regrets. A career switch may have truly turned out for the better on a personal level, but still leaves me feeling that I left some potential unfulfilled. Even in the context of this blog here, I sometimes criticize myself for not having improved my writing as rapidly as I should have been, and for not having the drive to force that change upon myself. This guilt is in some ways internal and in other ways external, but the result is the same. 

Thanks to Soul, I realize now that I do indeed get caught up in conflating inspiration with passion, purpose with fulfillment, and so on. I haven’t resolved what exactly this means for me, or what it is that I ultimately will feel once I’ve sorted out these feelings and the degree to which I value them, but it has me on a long road of introspection. Not every film can do that, which makes having watched Soul all the more worthwhile.

There’s…34 Days…of Summer Vacation…

Whether it’s in the US or in the Netherlands, I’ve noticed that Phineas and Ferb is amazingly popular, so it should be no surprise that the show has aired in Japan as well. The only curious thing is that P&F takes place over the “104 days of summer vacation” as mentioned in the intro, but in Japan summer vacation is significantly shorter and they get homework during their break because their school year starts in April.

So what is a Japanese Phineas and Ferb opening to do?

Simple: Don’t mention summer vacation at all.

I swear they got the perfect voice for their sister Candace. Seriously, I feel like it’s spot-on with what I imagine a Japanese Candace to be, even the way she says “opening theme.”

Disney Returns to the Past to Dive into the Future: The Princess and the Frog

Disney’s new 2-D animated feature The Princess and the Frog sees a dashing prince of the country Maldonia named Naveen transformed into a frog by a witch doctor, Facilier. Tiana, a hard-working waitress living in New Orelans whose dream is to open up her own restaurant, gets caught up in Naveen’s turmoil and the two go on a great adventure while learning about what is important in life and picking up a couple of goofy, yet kind-hearted animal pals.

A prince, a working class girl, a dastardly villain, talking animal sidekicks, and a curse to bind them all. At first, it seems as if the only goal of The Princess and the Frog is to capture what made the animated Disney classics so loved by people of all ages, but the very prominent advertisements touting Disney’s return to their forte belies the fact that the movie is very new and very ambitious.

While Prince Naveen is just as handsome as any of the other Disney heroes, and Tiana just as beautiful as any of the heroines, the two stand out among the crowd by subverting many of the popular archetypes for the better. Naveen is not just a ladies’ man but also a bit of a womanizer. He’s lazy, has no sense of responsibility, and has almost all the negative traits you can think of when you think of someone who was forcibly removed from the silver spoon he was raised on. You can see that he is still a good, admirable person, but he is a deeply flawed character, and while the perfect male heroes of previous Disney movies have their own place, Naveen cuts a new path for Disney to go. Similarly, Tiana never waits for someone to help her; she takes life into her own hands, challenging life to the extent that it becomes a fault of hers.

Naveen, Tiana and everyone else in the cast are incredibly balanced characters who, while very human, are never out of place in a fairy tale setting, and it makes following the story to its end that much more personal.

One potential pitfall of the whole movie was thankfully avoided, and that is the racial stereotyping that could have happened with a primary cast of non-Caucasians. Particularly, the witch doctor Facilier could have been a mine field, what with being a black voodoo master, but his presentation makes him out as a villainous character with a genuine stake in voodoo, instead of as a desperate attempt to “diversify” Disney.

And as for the animation itself, I think all I have to say is “it’s Disney.” They clearly put in all of their effort, and this is the one area in which they never really faltered all these years. The stories are a different matter, but given The Princess and the Frog I think it’s very likely that Disney now has the ability to surpass even its golden age. Whether that will be a reality will be seen in time.

Heavily flawed characters who are not always the most upstanding role models make their way through the world. As they learn and grow,  you can really sense that The Princess and the Frog is simply not running away to the past but rather pushing forward to challenge what it means to be a Disney movie, all without betraying the company’s past. In the end, I really recommend that everyone go see it.

Style Born out of Necessity

In Fred Schodt’s book The Astro Boy Essays, Fred points out that many of the qualities and traits of Japanese “limited” animation (as opposed to Disney-esque “full animation”) could trace their origins back to Tezuka Osamu’s original Tetsuwan Atom anime TV series, a series which was impeded by a staggeringly low budget that all but required these sorts of animaton “shortcuts.” Critics in Japan at that time would remark that the qualities of anime described above, qualities that were born out of necessity, gave anime much of its distinctive Japanese style and that it was in certain ways better than Disney-style full animation.

Of course, not everyone agreed, and others saw the fact that the limited animation style was because of a lack of money, and could not see it as a “style.” Evidently, Tezuka himself had mixed feelings about it: he was happy that these cost-cutting measures allowed him to animate Atom in the first place, but as a loyal fan of Walt Disney it hurt him to be unable to use the full animation he loved so much to bring Atom to life.

There is a sort of latent fear that goes hand in hand with the use of limited animation, and it is the fear of limited animation gone awry: Still frames, camera pans on single images, talking heads, if a show consists of nothing but blatant animation shortcuts, how can it be called animation? From that perspective, the concept of full animation seems safer, but it too carries its own pitfalls, namely “over-animation.” This is where an animation wants to show off its use of full animation so much that everything is animated and nothing ever stays still, to the point that it is difficult to concentrate on what’s actually happening in a cartoon. That’s not to say that it is impossible to do either extreme well, but that ultimately the answer lies somewhere in the middle given the limitations.

A similar problem occurs in 3D animation. Sometimes an animator will work very hard on a scene and it will look visibly impressive and absolutely gorgeous. However, because of the ease of replication in 3D animation, where with a simple switch of the camera angle you can use the same animation or effect and make it seem like it’s entirely new, many animators become tempted. They are so proud of their work that they want to use it again, and again, and again, until it loses all meaning and impact, much like the animators who wanted everything in a frame to move in order to prove just how amazing their animation could be. At this point, the animators must choose to limit themselves, to realize that their tools while seemingly infinite will not produce an infinitely enjoyable experience.

People are boxed in by their limitations, but within those limitations they find ways to improve and to get the most out of what they have. Then, should those limitations no longer be necessary, the people who worked in that style might continue to do so, having honed their technique all those years, and from there it no longer becomes a necessary step but a stylistic choice. Among those stylistic choices are stylistic limitations, to keep a work from being overwhelmed by seemingly endless potential.

What’s amazing about this concept, style born out of necessity, is how often it occurs in art: Tezuka and Tetsuwan Atom leading to the prevalent style of the anime Industry is one example, but you also have video game music of the 80s and 90s giving birth to the “chiptunes” (electronic music made through sound chips, generally the kind found in video games and computers) scene, and even oils becoming one of the de facto forms of paint, among many others. What’s even more amazing is that when you move well beyond the era in which the artistic style was born, well beyond the memories of anyone who was alive to experience that era, you get fresh minds and fresh faces who can approach material with few preconceived notions.

A while back I attended a outdoors chiptunes concert with some friends. While I was enjoying the music myself, I also noticed that a small boy, no more than four years old, enjoying the hell out of the chiptunes. At first I thought it was cute, but then something occurred to me: this kid had been born well after the heyday of the NES and SNES, and so he wasn’t enjoying chiptunes out of some sense of nostalgia, but rather out of the aesthetics he had acquired in the little time he had been alive. It gave me hope that we would be rid of the idea that just because a style was born out of necessity that it would not be considered inherently inferior.

Drossel, the Best Figma

How can I make such a wild claim that the Drossel Juno Vierzehntens Heizregister Fürstin von Flügel from Disney’s Fireball is the best Figma, when she’s only just recently been announced on their site?

Simple. Drossel is a robot and also a girl.

Despite recent attempts by Goodsmile to man up the Figma line with the world’s deadliest assassin and a gay porn star, Figmas are mostly known for being a fairly girly set of toys. Girly set of toys for guys, that is. Whether it’s Haruhi, or Konata, or Konata dressed as Haruhi, the big beefin’ robots are usually left to Kaiyodo’s Revoltech line. Which is all well and good, except that when it comes to having poseable joints, giant robots tend to fare better than fleshy meatbags in terms of having elbows and knees which make sense.

But now you have Drossel who, as stated above, is both robotic and feminine. Her joints make sense, and she possesses much of the trademark cuteness that the Figma line is known for. And she’s got the twintails. In a sense she’s the first Complete Figma.

Drossel goes on sale June 2009. As I don’t actually own it, I can’t recommend it per se, but really, check out dem knees.

Fireball: Disney did WHAT now?

Fireball is a 3-D animation airing in Japan, produced in part by Disney.

Yes, that Disney.

Each episode is less than two minutes long, and it seems to be a concerted effort by Disney to make newer in-roads into Japan’s animation-watching audience. I say newer because Japan IS actually fond of Mickey Mouse and friends, not to mention the fact that Tezuka idolized Walt Disney.

The use of 3D Animation is interesting, as it’s something that Japanese animation hasn’t really been great at, so in a sense it’s using Disney’s power to its advantage, though I don’t actually know to what degree they actually help.

The main character, Drossel, appears to be at least partially designed to appeal to otaku, with her long twintails and slender robotic figure and large “eyes,” so I also get the feeling that they are trying to tap into this audience as well.

I suspect this has something to do with seeing the success of Powerpuff Girls Z in Japan.