Monday, July 5, 2010

Thoughts on New Futurama

Avatar: The Last Airbender Monday may be late this week due to the holiday weekend. If I'm able to finish today, it will go up today; if I'm not able to finish it today, however, I may not be able to get it done for a couple of days. Sorry for the last-minute notice. As an apology, here's some proof that I do occasionally think about things other than Avatar:

The first two episodes of new Futurama, I was too excited by the new-ness and Futurama-ness of it all to form a reliable opinion. In particular, the fact that they didn't push the reset button on the Fry-Leela relationship, despite having memory loss as a plot element in the first episode and potential cheating in the second, was deeply impressive.

Last night's episode... not so much. Most of it was pretty good. Nothing on par with the best episodes of Futurama past, neither as heartwarming and -wrenching as "The Sting" or "Luck of the Fry-rish," nor as deliciously plot-tastic as "The Why of Fry," nor even as simply and happily entertaining as "The Deep South" or "Where No Fan Has Gone Before," it was for the large part entertaining enough, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments.

But then there was Mr. Chunks. Though he did give rise to one obscure-but-hilarious-if-you-get-it joke ("Pukeme-Pooyou"), which Futurama has always done well, mostly he was the kind of moronic gross-out "humor" that all too often mars even the best episodes of Comedy Central's other big animated shows, South Park.

This worries me, to say the least. The move to cable allows Futurama more freedom than they had on network television, true, and that opens up new artistic tools for both the comedy and drama of Futurama. But the greatness of Futurama has always lain in the fact that it is capable of being smart, subtle, and (despite and sometimes because of the inherent cynicism Matt Groening brings to everything) surprisingly uplifting. That's not really possible when you have a poo-eating, perpetually vomiting goat as a major plot point.

The other thing that deeply distresses me about the episode is that there's no hint in Fry's and Leela's interactions that anything has changed between them since the original Fox run. They don't act at all like a couple, and Leela even refers to Fry as "a good friend." What happened? Did they break up over "In-a-Gadda-Da-Leela" after all, and the writers just forgot to tell us?

The reason I thought it was daring of the writers not to reboot the Fry-Leela relationship was that unresolved sexual tension -- the classic "Will they or won't they?" -- is one of the driving sources of conflict, drama, and humor in many long-running serials, from comic strips to sitcoms. While it is impossible to move the characters forward without answering the question eventually, it can be very difficult to sustain a series after one of its major conflicts is resolved. Bringing Fry and Leela closes that arc, and it also reflects how far those characters have come: the Fry of first season and the Leela of first season could have never worked, mostly because he was a thoughtless, insensitive, lazy buffoon, but also because Leela could not permit herself to have a functional relationship.

Over the course of the series, both matured. Leela discovered her homeworld and even a family, and Fry's experiences slowly made him capable of caring. Compare the Fry of the real-world portion of "The Sting" to the Fry of the first season: he's still lazy and stupid, but he is genuinely loving toward Leela, without ulterior motive; he just wants her to be well. And then, of course, there's Fry's future self, Lars. The path from first-season Fry to Lars is clear, and it leads right through the Fry of "The Sting" -- his feelings for Leela make him want to be a better person, so he becomes one. It is perhaps not the healthiest relationship in the world, but it seems to work for them in the end.

Or it would, if the writers let it. The Fry of "Attack of the Killer App" is not the Fry of "Into the Wild Green Yonder." It's the inconsiderate jerkass of "I, Roommate," the third episode of the first season. Fry doesn't act like that anymore! Not toward Leela. For Leela, he would sit by a hospital bed for days, drive out his own mind-expanding parasites, or make a deal with the Robot Devil! Of course he would swim through puke for her. That shouldn't even be in question!

I hope, very much, that this episode is a fluke. Even the best show can have the occasional terrible episode, where everyone is out of character and the writing doesn't quite fit the show. Heck, my last AtLA Monday was one. So, I remain on the fence about new Futurama, but they still have plenty of time to win me over.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Why "The Last Airbender" Had to Fail

Of course we all know why, morally, The Last Airbender (the live-action movie remake of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender) had to fail. If you don't, look up "racebending"; the controversy has been covered well enough by others. (Remember, morality is always entirely about action; beliefs only matter insofar as they (poorly) predict action. It doesn't matter whether Shyamalan and the rest of his crew had racist intent; the casting choices were immoral.)

But even if Shyamalan had cast actors of the right ethnicities, I still skip watching The Last Airbender, and the reviews are proving me right. Here's why it was always doomed to suck:

1) Avatar is complex: A movie adaptation of a long, complex work, such as a novel or TV series, has to boil it down to its core elements. The problem is that the core elements of Avatar are hoary old cliches and the possibly the most formulaic of all stories, the monomyth: As prophesied, a child sets forth on a journey to master his power and become a man. The forces of evil try to stop him while he is still young and weak. Eventually he masters his powers and stomps out evil, ushering in a new age. Exciting the first time you encounter it, but it gets old fast, unless you have something other than plot to chew on -- which nine times out of ten, means characterization.

There's a lot of ways to make that twist. Avatar did it by making the hero NOT the sole focus of the story. Ultimately, it's an ensemble piece, and as much or more attention is paid to developing the characters of Sokka, Katara, and especially Zuko as to developing Aang. But pretty much all of that happens in side stories. Characters aren't solely or even primarily defined by how they interact with Aang, the way they would be in a typical monomyth (see Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann for example, where every character is defined by the role they play in Simon's story). Much of the character development happens while Aang isn't around, especially for Zuko. This presents a major problem if you're trying to boil nine hours of television down to 100 minutes of movie, because you either have to cut those side stories, losing all that characterization, or compress the side stories until they're so short that you lose the characterization anyway.

Of course, there's the third option of heavily rewriting the story so that the characterization is merged into the main plotline, but the level of changes needed to that to Avatar crosses the line from "adaption of" to "loosely inspired by."

2) Hollywood: Hollywood loves the monomyth. Hollywood is obsessed with the monomyth. Producers who have never studied literature outside of one required course in college will, upon hearing a pitch, ask about the Call to Action, the Road of Trials, the Temptress. The problem is that they don't understand that the monomyth is an analytical tool, not a formula for writing stories. Hollywood will always pull a story closer to the monomyth if they can -- and Avatar is pretty close to the monomyth already.

Even the most well-meaning director, who understands the craft storytelling deeply enough to know better, will still face pressure from his financial backers to follow the formula. And if the story is already almost at the formula, pulling it closer still, coupled with paring it down to series length, is going to produce an insufferably formulaic movie.

3) Shyamalan: Seriously, how does this guy keep getting backing? Every movie he's made is worse than the last -- Sixth Sense was good, albeit shallower than it thought it was; Unbreakable was decent; Signs was unmitigated crap. I haven't watched his movies after that, but broad consensus is that they're terrible.

I've seen reviews of The Last Airbender comparing him to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll. That level of awful is practically an achievement in itself.

4) Live Action, Realism, and Grit: Avatar was heavily inspired by the works of the greatest animator of all time, Hayao Miyazaki. The series is heavy on gorgeous, highly detailed scenes of natural beauty, with just a touch of the surreal and the impressionistic. Often times these aren't tracking or establishing shots, but backdrops on which the action unfolds, noticeable only on repeat viewings. Certainly a live action movie is capable of such beauty -- the Lord of the Rings movies pulled it off, for example -- but the tendency when adapting animation is to make it more "realistic", and as we all know, reality is brown and gray, filthy, and poorly lit. Or at least that's what "realistic" movies claim.

Add the last-minute decision to go 3-D (which halves the apparent brightness of the movie because each eye only sees half the light), and you have a recipe for a dark, drab, visually dull film that no amount of martial arts can save.

Not to mention, let's face it, punching and having a fireball erupt from your fist looks awesome in animation, but in live action it comes across as... kind of silly.

5) There was no need for a movie: More accurately, we already had a movie, and it was awesome. "Sozin's Comet," the finale of the TV series, was 90 minutes long (not counting commercials and opening/closing credits, which bumped it up to two hours), upped the animation quality to film caliber, took the already good music up to eleven with live strings, and told an epic, world-shattering, continent-spanning tale with multiple intersecting storylines that ultimately culminated in two simultaneous final showdowns happening hundreds of miles apart.

I'd rather have a remastered theatric release of "Sozin's Comet" than a generic live-action blockbuster any day. And don't tell me you'd need to introduce audiences to the characters -- it'd be cheap enough to make (considering that it's already made)that nobody but fans could show up, and it'd still make a huge profit.


I made the decision months ago to boycott "The Last Airbender" for its racist casting choices. But I've never regretted that decision, because I always strongly suspected the movie was going to suck, and now the reviews are confirming that suspicion. Avoid this movie like the plague! If you feel the need for some epic, movie-quality Avatar action, pop in "Sozin's Comet" instead. You'll be glad you did.