Encanto – Review

Going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Disney has built a long canonical line of feature films that have been the backbone of their company.  Even to today, the animated film canon is central to Disney’s identity, and they have been keeping track of their total number of features for the sake of celebrating every milestone.  Here, in 2021, they have reached yet another of those, with their 60th overall animated feature.  This particular milestone is special in how it represents the amount of success that Disney has had in recent decades.  It took Disney 54 years to reach their 30th feature film (1991’s Beauty and the Beast) and only 30 years to reach their 60th; the newly released Encanto.  That accelerated pace shows just how prolific Disney has been in recent years, being propelled by the Disney Renaissance and extending now through the Digital Era.  It has been a very transitional time period for Disney animation, but of course, there is plenty more planned for the future.  Though Encanto has been planned for some time to hold up the mantle of the 60th Disney feature, it became speculative for a time if it may indeed be a theatrical release.  The 59th feature (Raya and the Last Dragon) had to settle with a hybrid theatrical and digital release last Spring, which in some ways took the wind out of it’s sales and diminished it’s ultimate box office take.  Of course, it’s the best they could do for audiences at the time because of the lingering effects of the pandemic, and Disney not wanting to stall the release any longer.  Still, depending on how things panned out, the hybrid model could have ended up becoming the new norm, or even more dire for the theatrical loving community, it would show that digital only was the preferable choice.  As the pandemic lingered on through the summer, Disney wasn’t really confident either way.  And then the unlikely blockbuster success of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings resurrected the sleepy theatrical market and helped to confirm for Disney that theatrical first was the way to go.  Thus all of Disney’s remaining 2021 releases would be premiere first in theaters.

Unfortunately, through this era of pandemic related experimentation, Disney revealed itself to be playing favorites a bit with their catalog of titles.  Of the movies that did get a theatrical release instead of only digital, the Disney Animation department seemed to benefit the most, while Pixar was left off the movie screens altogether.  Pixar’s last two animated features, 2020’s Soul and 2021’s Luca both were dropped onto Disney+ instead of theaters.  It’s understandable for the movie Soul as it was premiering during the pandemic’s peak, but Luca premiered in the summer, long after movie theaters across the country had reopened and Disney had successfully implemented their hybrid release on films like Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella (2021).  Why Luca was chosen just for digital doesn’t make much sense out of that.  Pixar is still a valuable and profitable brand, and the movie had a lot of broad appeal across all ages.  From the outside, it appears that Disney was playing favorites with their own in-house animation studio, hoping to use them to drive the return to theatrical.  Then again, Disney may have been more guarded with regards to their Pixar titles, believing that a digital release would help them avoid disappointing box office in a still unsettled market and possibly believing that the movie would find more eyes on Disney+.  What ever went on behind the scenes, it’s unfortunate that Pixar got the worst situation out of the lingering effects of the pandemic, while Disney Animation got both of their 2021 releases the theatrical releases they deserved.  Personally, I am biased, and I wanted all movies to make it to the big screen in any way they could.  Disney made their choice based on how they saw things, and sadly that meant that most audiences couldn’t see Luca the way it was intended to be seen.  2022 will be different, as Pixar has two films set for theatrical first releases (Turning Red and Lightyear), and Disney has no doubt has sided with theatrical for the long run, though any further economic disruptions could change things.  For now, we are given the new theatrical film, Encanto, Disney’s milestone 60th feature.  The question is, does it have the same kind of Disney magic as all of it’s predecessors, or did it waste it’s good fortune of a milestone release?

Encanto is set in an unnamed fictional land based largely on Columbian culture.  After escaping vicious marauders who have driven them from their homes, a family makes their way into the unknown terrains of the South American jungles.  After loosing her husband who sacrifices his life to buy them time to escape, Alma Madrigal (Maria Cecilia Botero) and her newborn triplets are left alone in the wild.  Miraculously, the candle that had lit their way through the dark becomes enchanted.  The candle creates a home around them to give them shelter, which itself comes alive.  Several years later, the Madrigal home has become a paradise and safe haven, with many other peaceful settlers creating a village around the house.  The triplets have grown up and as we learn, have all been given special gifts from the house that involve supernatural powers.  The eldest daughter Julieta (Angie Cepeda) has the ability to heal people with the food she cooks.  Pepa (Carolina  Gaitan), the younger sister, can control the weather.  Pepa’s older children Dolores (Adassa) and Camillo (Rhenzy Feliz) have the gift of enhanced hearing and shape shifting respectively.  Julieta’s three daughters, Luisa (Jessica Darrow), Isabela (Dianne Guerrero) and Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) also live in the home with the rest of the family.  Luisa and Isabela have their gifts, which are super strength and conjuring flowers in her wake respectively, but Mirabel stands out because unlike the others, she was not given a gift.  When the family gathers the town to celebrate the gift giving to Pepa’s youngest son, Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), who ends up talking to animals, Mirabel discovers something wrong with the house.  She believes that the house is beginning to crumble and the magic begins disappearing with it.  She intends to discover for herself what is happening.  The clue to the house’s fate lies in what remains of her Uncle Bruno’s room.  Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) left the house long ago after he discovered through his power of seeing the future that the thing Mirabel is fearing will come true, and the family has since never spoken of it.  But, Mirabel is set in finding out the truth behind Uncle Bruno’s prophecy and discover why she is at the center of it.

Encanto marks the second collaboration between Disney Animation and famed songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.  His first project with them was the hit film Moana (2016).  Encanto hits a little closer to home for Miranda who gets to tap more into his Latino roots for the music in this film.  This also finds him a lot more involved in the production, because he’s also credited as part of the story team on this film.  This movie does indeed feel more crafted around Miranda’s contributions than anything else he has done with Disney, with the songs definitely showing his distinctive writing style.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  For one thing, the songs are definitely well crafted and catchy.  On the other hand, it almost feels like more focus was given to the songs than anything else in the movie.  Encanto is unfortunately a very unfocused movie that feels too lightweight to leave an impact.  I was hoping for a more rousing adventure from the likes of Disney, but the movie keeps things very low stakes throughout.  The Madrigal home is central to pretty much every aspect of this movie, and the film doesn’t even venture outside of it that much.  As a result, the movie just comes across as being very small, which is a little bit disappointing.  For a studio that once had climaxes that involved fighting dragons, or battling on the highest points of a mighty palace, or chasing after one’s true love and possibly laying their life on the line to save them, this movie’s climax hinges on a simple generational disagreement.  I see how it fits within the story thematically, but it’s still kind of anti-climatic.  The movie, as I mentioned before is best served by Lin-Manuel’s involvement, as his songs are where the movie comes alive the most.  But, in between the songs, there isn’t much story to speak of.  It’s just a simple series of events between a single family, dealing with their own internal dramas, with the only twist being that they mostly all have special powers.  And those powers are really explored as much as they should be.  It just feels like the powers are there to liven up the story and give the animators something to have fun with.

Moving from that, the movie is not an absolute failure in story.  It certainly is a lot better than Frozen II (2019).  The Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are definitely what salvages the movie for the most part.  If you are familiar with Miranda’s style, which extends from his movie contributions like this and Moana, as well as his most iconic work, the Broadway show Hamilton, then these songs will feel very familiar as well.  Miranda’s hip hop infused lyrics manage to work seamlessly with the Latin beats of the main score.  I often found myself marveling how the singers in the film manage to string together so many words in a single breath.  The songs are their own special achievement in this movie, and I’m sure that many people will find themselves humming these tunes afterwards, and replaying them on Spotify when they get home.  They may not have the sing-a-long re-playability as some of Disney’s most long lasting hit tunes like “Be Our Guests,” “Under the Sea” or “Hakuna Matata,” but no one is going to come away feeling disappointed by these songs, even if they like me find the story itself to be disappointed.  The animation in the movie also comes alive and rises to the challenge of these songs.  Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard (Zootopia) certainly bring a playfulness to the songs, whether it’s through the creative staging or the wild character animation.  I think one of the highlights is a catchy number called “We Don’t Talk about Bruno,” a song going into the backstory of the character, which definitely felt like all the departments working to their fullest, from the vocal performances, to Lin-Manuel’s manic songwriting, to the clever creative animation, all put into this tango like showstopper.  Most of the other songs do their job well enough too.  I think that the reason why the movie may have faltered a bit in the story department is because the songs probably came first and then the story was crafted to surround them, which wasn’t as assembled with quite the same amount of care or energy.

The movie does benefit from an effective main character as well.  I like the fact that out of this family of super human beings, the movie’s plot does hinge on the two characters who don’t have any gifts; Mirabel and her Abuela Alma.  The fact that the main character has to work at a disadvantage that her extended family does not have helps to make her role in the story more interesting.  She was denied something that everyone else that she loves managed to gain, and she doesn’t understand why.  It makes her character motivations clear.  I like the fact that she is neither portrayed as purely good or distantly resentful.  She bounces back and forth between wanting to know why she was left out and having it not be the worst thing in the world for her.  It makes her more dynamic as a result, as you see the internal conflict in her guiding her through the mystery that she must unfold.  The rest of the family are a colorful bunch of characters as well, though I feel like some of them could have done with a bit more personality other than the powers that they show off.  The supporting characters that stand out the most are those in her immediate family.  Her sisters, Isabela and Luisa, in fact are the only other characters in the movie who get their own songs.  Luisa’s song “Surface Pressure” is another highlight, especially in the way it stages the song around her super strength ability.  It might have served the movie better if it trimmed the more extended family members and just focused on a more tightly knit family unit.  Not that the other characters are bad in any way, it’s just that the movie has a hard time giving all of them any amount of spotlight.  One really welcome character is Uncle Bruno, who comes into the story fairly late.  Though he has limited screen time, he does make the most of it, with John Leguizamo delivering a delightfully eccentric vocal performance.  Stephanie Beatriz also is strong as Mirabel, making her both funny but not obnoxiously quirky.  Given her already long working history with Lin-Manuel Miranda in projects like In the Heights (2021), she is clearly skilled enough as an actress and singer to take on a character like Mirabel.

Where the movie also delivers up to the high Disney standards is in the animation.  This is a visually impressive film, with animation up to the same quality of some of Disney’s most classic titles as of late.  One thing that I especially was impressed with was the visualization of the Madrigal house itself.  The house is a world in of itself, quite literally in fact, as the individual rooms for the family members open up into large spaces, like the Tardis from Doctor Who.  One of the nicest touches is that the movie turns the Madrigal house into a character itself.  The house comes alive with the floors, drawers, doors, shutters and tile roofs all moving independently and giving assistance to the characters.  It’s a home with a personality, and some of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the clever ways that the animators found to communicate gestures through the architecture of the house.  The movie also has a colorful palette to it.  The colors pop on screen and dazzle with a wide kaleidoscope of visual splendor.  You also really get the sense of the Columbian influence of this movie, where the multicolor house stands out from the deep greens of the dense jungle that surrounds it.  I’m sure the team of animators on this film looked at how small Columbian villages come to life through their choices of color in contrast with the tropical surroundings.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they had come across quite a few buildings that looked like the Madrigal home in their research.  The movie benefits a lot from the work put it in it’s setting, but it also makes the magical gifts given to the family interesting as well.  I especially like the ideas of Pepa’s weather control being limited to a cloud flying over her head and raining entirely around her depending on her mood.  Isabela’s flower power is also beautifully realized.  Overall, while the story may be lacking, the animation is undoubtedly on par with Disney at it’s best, and in many ways also offers up a few worthwhile surprises that helps to set this movie apart within the canon.

Encanto is by no means a bad film and in many ways I think it will prove to be a hit with audiences.  It might just be my sometimes impossibly high standards with regards to Disney animation, but Encanto just felt like it lacked that special thing to put it higher on the list of great Disney film.  I want a Disney movie that has a lot more to say like Zootopia, or comes to a much more exciting climax like Aladdin (1992).  Encanto just feels like an exercise for the animators and less like a bold statement for the future of animation.  Perhaps where some of my disappointment comes from is the fact that this is a milestone film and that it generally feels a bit too small for that distinction.  All that said, there is still a lot to like with this movie.  The characters are likeable, the Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are catchy, and the animation is definitely top notch.  It’s just all put together in a way that felt like it wasn’t reaching it’s full potential.  For a milestone movie, I really think something more ambitious like Raya and the Last Dragon should have been given the pivotal milestone.  But, that’s just my opinion.  I’m sure Disney believed in this movie more and were happy to spotlight it.  It certainly shows that they are eager to continue working closely with Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Whether or not he continues to work with Disney more is uncertain, but this movie will likely be a good collaboration that both sides will be proud of.  Regardless of what I personally thought of Encanto, it is great to see Disney Animation reach this amazing milestone, and even more importantly, do so in the theatrical market.  I can definitely say that this is a movie that benefits from being shown on a big screen, and I’m sure that audiences will appreciate having that option available to them.  It is not an all time great, but Encanto is a perfectly fine piece of entertainment that will no doubt leave audiences happy and feeling as magical as the enchanted world they have been welcomed into.

Rating: 7/10

Off the Page – The Grapes of Wrath

It’s hard to contemplate how harsh the Great Depression was on working class Americans so many years and generations after it happened.  Today, we worry about pandemic related mass unemployment and supply chain disruptions resulting from a year of lockdowns, but the Great Depression was a whole different kind of monster.   With an unemployment rate that reached a staggering 24% of the population which persisted for several years due to stagnant growth in the economy, it still remains unchallenged as the greatest economic downturn in US history.  With the stock market crash came the collapsing of the banks, which could no longer provide loans to boost business or help average citizens hold onto their homes.  Eventually, foreclosures drove many people out of their homes and into tenement camps that later became known as “Hoovervilles,” named after then President Herbert Hoover, whose botched handling of the economic crises was largely blamed for the prolonged Depression.  It was a harsh time in America, as people were desperate to find any work they could, and that often led to many people falling victim to scam artists and greedy opportunists who would prey upon the desperate for cheap labor.  This in turn led to a rise of push back from the workers, and they started organizing and demanding better may and living conditions.  Sadly, the workers faced resistance by being labeled communist agitators, and wealthy business owners used their powerful influence to manipulate the legal system to deny workers the rights that they were seeking.  Still, the rise of unionization and the clear devastation brought on by the poor handling of the economy led to a change in the American political system, which eventually led to the election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency, who ran on a promise of a “New Deal” overhaul of the Social Welfare system in America.  Though it would take many years of tough battles in the halls of congress, Roosevelt eventually got his New Deal programs passed, which brought about pivotal new safety net measures, like Social Security and a Federal Minimum Wage.  Probably no other era in 20th century had as much of a profound effect on the future of America as those Depression years.

And yet, as time has pressed forward, the lessons taken from the Depression seem to have faded as well.  Today, we take Social Security for granted, and unionization is at the lowest level it has ever been, which in turn has led to another era of wealth inequality and corporate exploitation of labor.  What we have left to remind us of the horrible legacy of the Great Depression are the stories told by our elders and the documentation of that time period that survives to this day.  The Dorthea Lange photographs of migrant workers living in Hoovervilles still vividly capture the horrific reality that ordinary American citizens endured over those years.  Several news articles and news reels that have survived also have given us an idea of what it was like, though they feel more and more detached so many years later.  For many, the most enduring portrait of the horrors of the Great Depression comes from the pages of what many consider to be among the “Great American Novels;”  John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the famous 1940 movie that it inspired.  Born and raised in Salinas, California, Steinbeck saw the effects of the Great Depression all too clearly, as he witnessed the mass migration of poor farmers from the Prairie states making their way to the fertile lands of his home state, only to see them being either threatened, mistreated or generally exploited by his fellow Californians once they got there.  In his writing, he expressed sympathy for the working man, and sought to tell their story.  He wrote articles for the San Francisco News about the plights of the migrant workers in a series that came to be known as The Harvest Gypsies, which told the story in the workers’ own words.  He would also write many short stories and novels that offered many different windows into the lives of poor working farmers, such as Of Mice and Men and of course The Grapes of Wrath.  His writing has often been described as Dust Bowl Fiction, relating to the simultaneous catastrophe of the Dust Bowl famine of 1935-36, which exacerbated the Depression even further.  Though a lot of his writing gave a much needed compassionate voice to the too often overlooked migrant worker, it was not always met with favorable reception.

“Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

John Steinbeck wore his New Deal progressive politics proudly on his sleeves, which often opened him up to accusations of being a communist sympathizer or just an outright card carrying member.  The Grapes of Wrath was his most pivotal work to date, detailing through the eyes of one family all of the harsh realities of Depression Era exploitation.  In his novel, he makes no illusions of where he stands, with every authority figure and capitalist portrayed as corrupt, and the only compassionate party in the story other than the migrants are the supervisors of a Government run camp that helps keep the law enforcement at bay.  For it’s perceived anti-capitalist viewpoint, The Grapes of Wrath was banned in many corners of the country, with censors fearing it would inspire communist infiltration of the workforce.  Even in Steinbeck’s home state his novel met resistance, with the Kern County Board of Supervisors out right banning the sale of the book.  But one other part of the state that responded well to Steinbeck’s novel was Hollywood, and in particular, a very unlikely champion named Daryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, was a lifelong Republican, but he was sympathetic to the struggles of the working class during the Great Depression and the movies from his studio often reflected a progressive attitude towards social issues.  Naturally, he found the appeal in Steinbeck’s vivid portrait of Depression era suffering. and optioned the novel right away, long before it even went into wide publication.  Still, Zanuck had to get around the censorship issues that plagued The Grapes of Wrath.  He sent investigators to tenement camps up and down the state of California to see how accurate Steinbeck’s accounts of the horrific conditions the migrant workers lived in were.  Not only did their findings back up Steinbeck’s accounts, but they proved to be even worse than expected.  With that knowledge, Zanuck knew that it was not only worthwhile to adapt The Grapes of Wrath for the big screen, but also essential.  He tapped one of the most celebrated filmmakers of that period, John Ford, to bring the novel to life, and it would prove to be one of the most ideal matches of filmmaker and author Hollywood would ever see.

“I never had my house pushed over before.  Never had my family stuck out on the road.  Never had to lose everything I had in my life.”

John Ford’s film largely sticks pretty close to the book for the first part, but diverts significantly in the later half.  Those second half differences in particular reveal a lot about what it took to get the movie made in the midst of the threat of censorship.  It also reveals a lot about the different world views of the author and the director.  Even with the limitations, the movie still manages to paint a vivid portrait of the Great Depression and the horrifying affect it had on the people who lived through it.  Like the book, we are introduced to the Joad Family, a tightly knit unit of Oklahoma farmers, known as Okies, who have no other choice than to hit the road and head off to a hopefully better life in California.  After the bank forecloses their farm, with the Dust Bowl rendering their soil useless, the Joad family straps everything in their possession to the back of a beat up old truck and leaves the land that has sustained them for generations behind.  The book and movie detail the sights and events that follow them along the way as they drive down Route 66 to their destination.  The movie removes a couple of the different vignettes on the road trip out, but still keeps the important ones in the film, including the losses of loved ones.  Where John Ford really proves he’s the perfect director to tackle this kind of subject matter is in his no nonsense approach to his visual story-telling.  His film feels completely devoid of the usual Hollywood glitz and you would almost believe that he’s shooting a documentary at times.  One of the most remarkable moments in the movie is when the Joad Family arrives at their first Hooverville in California, and Ford shows their arrival through an incredible POV shot from the front of their truck.  The camera pans across the view they see of the camp, with poor and destitute people staring back as the truck passes through.  You really see the influence of Dorthea Lange’s heartbreaking photographs in this memorable POV shot, with the camp appearing to be the real deal.  This must have been a shocking thing for audiences in 1940, which was only a couple short years removed from the worst years of the depression.  People who avoided seeing the conditions within these camps were now suddenly witnessing it first-hand on the big screen, and the Ford style was very instrumental in making that happen.

But what mattered the most in making the story resonate within the film was how well audiences connected with the characters.  In many ways, this is where we see some of the big differences between the novel and the film.  In Steinbeck’s novel, all the members of the Joad family are spotlighted with their own different struggles during the journey.  In the film, it’s really only three principle characters that are focused on.  One of course is the protagonist eldest son of the family, Tom Joad.  Tom Joad was very much a coveted part to play, as he embodied the idealized American working man identity, fighting for justice in a world that has treated the helpless poorly.  Daryl Zanuck would end up giving the role to one of the rising stars in Fox’s stable of talent; a young man named Henry Fonda.  Fonda had already been under contract at Fox for many years, but had never been the central lead in a film until now.  With Tom Joad, Fonda’s folksy Nebraska background came in handy, because he could believably portray a destitute migrant farmer while still maintaining his movie star, golden boy profile.  In many ways, straddling both of those two worlds enabled Fonda to create Tom Joad into this more mythic figure as a result; becoming the epitome of the righteous crusader for the rights of workers.  Something I’m sure Fonda welcomed as he shared much of Steinbeck’s progressive political views.  Apart from Tom Joad, the other crucial characterization that’s central to the story is that of Ma Joad.  Ma’s part in the story is more or less exactly as Steinbeck wrote, with her being the crucial glue that keeps the family together through all the hardship.  But, as the movie elevates Tom Joad to a more central role in relation to everything else, her maternal relationship to him likewise also gets elevated.  Veteran actress Jane Darwell, in the role that won her a supporting actress Oscar, is absolute perfection as Ma Joad.  Her resilience and practical outlook on life is both inspiring as well as heartbreaking.  She has got to be the pillar of strength that keeps hopes up even as the seems to be none left.  And Ms. Darwell perfectly conveys that in her performance.  A particularly memorable scene comes early as she burns the last of her remaining possessions before they leave their Oklahoma homestead.  When she looks at herself in the mirror while dangling a pair of old earings next to her head, she conveys without words the warming nostalgic memories of her past and how the dread of the future cast a cloud on her now.  They are both two mighty performances that bring these pivotal characters to life.

“Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’.  I don’t know if right yet myself.  That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again.  Preachers gotta know.  I don’t know.  I gotta ask.”

The remaining members of the Joad family are all still present, but Ford’s film chooses to relegate them to very minor roles in comparison to Tom and Ma.  Instead, the other character given focus in the story is an unrelated tag along on the Joad’s journey named Jim Casy.  Casy is a one time preacher who lost his faith and believes like the Joad family that a better life may await him in California.  He’s pretty much exactly the same kind of character as he is in the books, played memorably in the movie by Western film stalwart John Carradine.  Casy, in many ways, is where Steinbeck brings in his own voice to the story, as the character begins to become the voice of righteous indignation to the mistreatment of the migrant farmers.  Though he’s a man who lost his faith before the beginning of the story, he becomes enlightened again after seeing the injustice committed all around him.  He radicalizes and begins to assemble other workers to join him in unionizing.  It’s largely because of the character of Jim Casy that the book found so much resistance from the censors.  One, the character was a sympathetic and in many ways inspirational view of a labor organizer, someone that the capitalist establishment was desperate to vilify.  Secondly, it’s pretty clear that Steinbeck also wrote the character as something of a Christ allegory, one of many allusions to religious symbolism in the book as a whole.  His initials are JC after all.  And in the same spirit as the symbol he represents, Casy also meets his end not long after his enlightenment, leading Tom to pick up his mantle after being shaken by Jim’s murder.  For a lot of establishment figures, the use of this Christian allegory was especially seditious in their eyes, particularly those in the Religious Right.  That, as well as a lot of the frank depictions of violence and sexuality in Steinbeck’s novel led to to it being so widely banned across the country.  For Zanuck and Ford, they needed to find a way to make the message of Steinbeck’s writing work without running into those same censorship hurdles.  Carradine’s performance greatly helps to make Jim Casy a believable character.  He’s not overtly Christ-like in the way the character in the book is, but he still comes across as an inspiring voice that brings to the front all the righteous rage his character should have.  Carradine’s mellow voice and wide hopeful eyes also help to imbue the character with the same kind of spirit that Steinbeck’s words bring to the character.  To make this character work and appeal to a broad audience, the filmmakers managed to walk that fine line perfectly.

Essentially, the movie tempers the more radical nature of Steinbeck’s prose while still retaining it’s essential spirit.  But where Steinbeck and Ford diverge is in their ultimate outlook on the fate of the Joad family, which in many ways reveals how both men viewed humanity as a whole.  The endings of the books and the movie are very different, which in some ways make sense considering what a book can get away with more than movie.  Both stories do eventually lead to Tom Joad’s departure from the family, as he is being pursued by the law for killing the man who slayed Jim Casy.  But what happens after that is where the split happens.  John Ford follows up Tom’s heartbreaking exit with a beacon of hope for the Joad family.  A good job opportunity has presented itself, and the Joads hit the road for Northern California with hope that something good waits on the other side.  In these final moments, Ma Joad reflects on how, after everything that has happened, the family has the ability to press on and be hopeful.  In her words, “we’re the people,” she basically underscores the idea that by sticking together, they’ve managed to make themselves stronger, and that is what will get them to an eventual better life.  It’s basically a statement to reinforce the idea of change through solidarity, reinforcing the call for unionizing that the book promote.  Steinbeck on the other hand leaves the story on a bit more bleak note.  Things don’t go well for the Joad family up to the final page.  The eldest daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, has been with child for the entirety of the story.  In the final chapters, she gives birth to a stillborn baby.  After this tragedy, the Joad family are also forced to take shelter from a storm during their travels.  When they find an abandoned barn to hide in, they also find another migrant farmer dying of starvation.  Realizing the man’s need for nourishment, both Ma Joad and Rose realize what they must do.  So, in a rather bleak final note to end the book on, Rose let’s the starving man drink the breast milk that she’s been lactating post-pregnancy.  You can probably see why John Ford opted for his ending.  It does offer an interesting contrast, though, as Steinbeck seems to express a more pessimistic outlook on the state of humanity.  Ford clearly wanted to inspire his audience with a glimmer of hope, but Steinbeck clearly wanted us to see just how bad it had gotten in America, and that hope was very much fleeting.  Steinbeck’s ending overall feels far more like an indictment of the system that he viewed as broken.  I imagine this must have been an image that he probably witnessed while investigating the camps, and it’s one that he wanted the reader to clearly understand as well.  Both Ford and Steinbeck clearly wanted to instill sympathy for their subjects, but Steinbeck’s approach feels far less like a Hollywood ending, and more of a wake-up call to his readers to see the world for how it really is.

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad.  I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there too.”

With nearly a century gone by since the deepest depths of the Depression, we have less of a comprehension of how bad it got.  My one connection to that time comes from the lessons I learned from my Grandparents.  My Grandpa and Grandma on my mothers side in particular were very familiar with the kinds of narratives found in John Steinbeck’s novels, because they themselves grew up in the same California farming communities that these migrant farmers flocked to during the Depression.  They didn’t tell me much about the horrific kinds of exploitation that was going on during that time, partially because they weren’t near any of those farms and they were probably too young to realize what was going on.  They did tell me about how their families often had to ration goods in those days, and that something as commonplace today as an orange was seen as a luxury to them during the Depression.  As a tradition every Christmas in the years since, my grandparents would place an Orange in our stockings, done as a way to remind all of us of what their families went through to endure the hardship of the Depression.  It’s certainly the thing that introduced me to the reality of the Great Depression.  Though my grandparents were as heavily effected, they nevertheless remembered how hard it was, and they didn’t want us to forget too.  That’s why John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer winning The Grapes of Wrath is not only an important story to remember, but an essential one as well.  It shows the depths that humanity can fall to when pushed to it’s limits, and that all that we have left after we’ve lost everything else is our own compassion to each other and the willingness to do good in spite of such bad odds.  John Ford managed to bring the essence of Steinbeck’s to the big screen, albeit to the extent he could given the censorship limitations at the time.  With his down to earth sense of humanity, remarkably naturalistic photography courtesy of the legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland (who also won an Oscar), and incredible lived in performances from his cast, Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is every much just as masterful as the book that inspired it.  Today, both the book and the movie’s messages feel more relevant than ever as we are seeing yet another reckoning between capital and labor erupt in America, and the same old Red Scare tactics being revived to push back against it.  It’s a time like this that a movie like The Grapes of Wrath becomes essential viewing, to remind us that this kind of story happened in America, and not that long ago, and it could very well happen again if we are not careful.  The pandemic certainly made that a possibility.  The Grapes of Wrath, both as a work of literature and a cinematic masterpiece, are undisputedly among the great American fables, and whether their outlooks are hopeful or pessimistic, it is crucial that all of us pay attention to it for our own good as a nation.

“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out.  But we keep a’comin’.  We’re the people that live.  They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us.  We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”

Tale As Old As Time – The Groundbreaking Legacy of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Animation historians will note that one of the most pivotal periods ever for the artistic medium was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, at a point where animation made a great leap forward that would help carry it into the new millennium as not just something for the kids, but as a respectable artform respected by Hollywood at large.  Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, animation was trying to define itself in new ways.  This included experimental animation from the likes of Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi, to darker toned animation from the likes of Don Bluth, to acclaimed imports from the likes of Japanese anime.  In many ways, they were there to fill a vacuum left over after the biggest names in animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had diminished in popularity.  Warner Brothers had already retired it’s animation division and were solely using their beloved Looney Tunes characters mainly for television purposes.  Disney fell into a funk in what was known as the post-Walt years, or otherwise known as the Disney Dark Ages.  There were still animated films being made like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but they were fewer and far between and a far cry from the movies of Walt Disney’s time.  Going into the 80’s, fear began to spread that Disney was going to fold their entire animation department altogether, which became especially possible after the colossal box office failure of The Black Cauldron (1985).  But, a new regime at the studio led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to give Animation one final shot to save it’s future.  In order to do that, Disney Animation decided to return to the foundation on which it began and take on a another beloved fairy tale, that being The Little Mermaid (1989).  The experiment worked, and Mermaid ended up becoming a huge hit and saved Disney Animation from annihilation.  But, it wasn’t over as Disney decided to strike while the iron was hot and pursue yet another beloved fairy tale as their next animated hit.  That of course would be the immortal tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast is one that has it’s origins in many different places and cultures, spanning across the globe and the centuries.  A tale as old as time, as it were.  Though you can find it’s influences in many different cultures, the story that we are familiar with the most is from the 1756 French interpretation from writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  This version is the most noteworthy because it centered on the identity of the central heroine of the story; the country girl known as Belle, which naturally means Beauty in French.  The Beaumont interpretation also defined other elements crucial to the story like the Enchanted castle that the Beast calls home as well as the significance of a Rose as a plot element in the story.  In the original story, it is a Rose that sparks the series of events that leads Belle to meeting the Beast, as the Beast threatens retribution against Belle’s father for stealing a Rose from his garden, and Belle elects to take her father’s place as his prisoner.  Over time, Belle begins to see the humanity in the Beast and the two grow closer, eventually leading to Belle being able to break the curse that has turned the Beast from man to animal.  It’s a story that has captivated the imaginations of many over the years, both as a pivotal work of fantasy but also as quintessential love story as well.  Of course, it became a favorite filmmakers as well.  Renowned French auteur Jean Cocteau created his own magical version of the story with what many consider to be among one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever made.  Cocteau’s version was almost so beloved that few other filmmakers dared to touch the story afterwards, because they felt that they would fall short of Cocteau’s masterpiece.  But, if there was ever someone to try, it was Disney.  Given that the Cocteau version itself features many incredible flights of fantasy, it only makes sense that animation could take on something similar.  However, bringing new life to an age old story carries it’s own set of problems.  Walt Disney himself ended up shelving a version of Beauty and the Beast, because he could never resolve the challenges of the story, mainly that the whole second half of the story is just two characters alone in a castle.  He ended up opting to make Sleeping Beauty (1959) instead, which gave Walt a more satisfying artistic pursuit.  But, for his successors in the years after, it became an especially daunting challenge to undertake; could they end up doing something that Walt himself found too difficult.

With Michael Eisner taking over as the new CEO of Disney in 1984, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left in charge of the Animation department (something he admittedly knew nothing about going in), the culture began to immediately change at the studio.  After years of wondering “What would Walt do?” the question shifted to what were the people now in charge going to do.  What Katzenberg did bring was a renewed sense of trying harder and going bigger with their new projects.  The new culture at the studio did in the end work out, as The Little Mermaid‘s success would attest.  And like Beauty and the Beast, Mermaid was another property that Walt Disney had attempted but later abandoned.  If they could make Mermaid work, why not Beauty.  Around 1987, while Mermaid was still in it’s final phases of production, Beauty and the Beast was given the greenlight for development.  The same songwriting team behind Mermaid, composer Alan Menken and Lyricist Howard Ashman, were commissioned to write the score for the new film.  A longtime story department member at Disney named Don Hahn was also given the opportunity to produce his first feature.  Initially, the film was going to be produced at a satellite studio in London, with animation legend Richard Williams directing, as he was just finishing up his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) for the studio.  However, unresolvable story issues came up and Williams ended up leaving the project after the first pass at the story, opting instead to return to his pet project The Thief and the Cobbler (1992) instead.  With Williams departure, producer Don Hahn  and the story team scrambled to save the project from cancellation.  They decided to bring the production home to Burbank and assemble a new team to guide the production.  Directing duties fell on two newcomers named Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose only work previously at Disney was creating a pre-show segment for a theme park attraction called Cranium Command, which was found at the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot.  These were not the usual suspects you would expect for a prestigious project like Beauty and the Beast, but like the moral of the story itself, looks can be deceiving.

With a looming deadline of Thanksgiving weekend 1991, the animation team had to scramble quickly.  Principle animation didn’t even begin until early 1990, giving the team little over a year to complete the film; an unheard of short window in the medium known for it’s long production cycles.  Still, once things began to roll, the film began to come together without interruption.  One of the big successes of Beauty of the Beast was the fact that they managed to resolve the story problems that confounded even Walt Disney.  What helped the most was that they filled out the cast of the story with a colorful collection of characters who populated the Beast’s castle.  In the classic Cocteau version, the Beast’s chateau is populated with enchanted appliances and decorations that have human like appearance and even come to life at times.  Disney includes these enchanted objects as well in their version, but unlike the ones in Cocteau’s film, they have personalities of their own.  For Disney’s Beauty, we learn that the curse that turned a handsome prince into the beast also affect his household staff as well, making them into enchanted objects that are scattered throughout.  As a result, the empty desolate castle no longer feels empty, and the stories of these enchanted objects help to support the main story between Belle and the Beast.  Though the enchanted objects number in the hundreds, it’s three primary ones that are central to the story, and they are a debonair candelabra maître’ d named Lumiere, a stuffy table clock majordomo named Cogworth, and a sweet matronly teapot maid named Mrs. Potts.  It also helped that several veteran character actors were brought in to give these enchanted objects their personalities, with Broadway veteran Jerry Orbach channeling Maurice Chevalier in the role of Lumiere, David Ogden Stiers doing his best wound up British butler as Cogsworth, and the incredible Angela Lansbury absolutely warming our hearts as Mrs. Potts.  But their contributions wouldn’t have worked as well enough if the movie hadn’t effectively perfected it’s two leads.  Broadway star Paige O’Hara landed the coveted role of Belle and as a result with her forceful but dignified performance, she set a new high standard for a Disney princess.  Most surprisingly however was the choice of one time teen heartthrob Robby Benson in the role of the Beast.  Certainly not the voice you would first think of for a Beast, and Benson had to really stand out in a large crowd of potential actors, including Regis Philbin according to director Kirk Wise in the film’s audio commentary (can you imagine).  What probably won Robby Benson the role ultimately was that he managed to find the soul of the character.  And indeed, one of the remarkable strengths of the final film is how well it makes us the audience fall in love with the Beast.

But apart from the stellar cast that was assembled for the movie, the film also remarkably pushed the animation medium to new heights.  A few of the animators from the now shuttered London studio did manage to make the trip back to Burbank, California and pick up right where they left off, and because of their work on Beauty and the Beast, they have gone on to become some of the most celebrated animators of all time.  Of special note was the animator of the Beast, named Glen Keane.  Keane, who also animated Ariel in The Little Mermaid, was instrumental in not only animating the Beast, but also designing his look as well.  His work is really a masterclass in animation, because he perfectly constructed a character that can be equal parts fearsome and loveable, and as a result he found the beauty with a monster that was instrumental to the morale of the story.  Working in unison with Keane’s animation of the Beast was James Baxter’s incredible animation of Belle.  The subtlety of his animation helps to give Belle this graceful presence in the story; stern, independent, but not afraid to express her emotions openly.  Again, Belle set a new high standard for Disney princesses, and it was largely due to the marriage of James Baxter’s animation and Paige O’Hara’s soulful performance.  Another animator, Andreas Deja, also stood out with his animation of the movie’s villain Gaston.  With Gaston, Deja set out to create the exact opposite of the Beast, a character beautiful on the outside but ugly within, and for inspiration he modeled Gaston on the muscled beefcakes that frequently populated the gyms around the Los Angeles area; something I can attest to being real as I’ve been to gyms in the LA region.  Gaston would mark the beginning of a solid run of memorable villain assignments for Andreas, as he would go on to animate Jafar in Aladdin (1992) and Scar in The Lion King (1994).  Also of note was animator Will Finn, who worked on Cogsworth.  He developed the concept that would help guide the animation of the enchanted objects, developing the idea that the characters were made of a material he called Disneyite.  As he described it, Disneyite to the touch would feel like brass or wood, but it would be as flexible and moldable as rubber, and that’s what he said the enchanted objects were made of.  This helped to give the other animators the idea to be more flexible with their animation and not portray the enchanted objects as too stiff.  One other thing that Beauty and the Beast broke new ground on was the incredible use of a new tool called computer animation.  Still in it’s infancy, and years away from Toy Story (1995), applications of computer animation were still untested in animation, and many didn’t know if it would work in conjunction with traditional hand drawn animation.  But, a devoted team of artists attempted to apply this new technology to Disney animation, and Beauty and the Beast provided the most unexpected result of all.  For a pivotal scene in the movie, hand drawn Belle and the Beast enter a completely CGI environment made to look like an ornate ballroom.  Remarkably the two elements matched up perfectly, creating a breathtaking result as the camera swoops around the environment like nothing seen in animation before.  It’s still to this day one of the most enthralling moments ever in animation.

While the movie managed to cross the finish line under such a tight schedule, there was an unfortunate drama also taking place behind the scenes.  Unbeknownst to much of the crew at the time, lyricist Howard Ashman was in the final stages of his battle with AIDS while working on Beauty and the Beast.  Ashman had only told a handful of people in his inner circle that he was ill, and he only broke the news to his collaborator Alan Menken the night they won their Oscars for the music of The Little Mermaid.  But, even as he was in and out of the hospital in those final years, Ashman continued to work adamantly on this score that meant so much to him.  Both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were deeply personal stories to him, given their messages of tolerance, compassion, and understanding.  As an out and proud gay man working in a medium that wasn’t always accepting of outsiders, Ashman gravitated towards stories that spoke to the oddballs and so-called “freaks” in our society and asked the audience to see the good inside and not just go along with what society considers to be normal and beautiful.  That’s certainly true with the portrayal of the Beast and his antithesis Gaston, but it was also important for Ashman that Belle was also a bit of an outsider in the story; looked down upon by the rest of her “poor provincial town” because she is such a bookworm.  That’s where Ashman found the heart of the story and he reflected that into the many memorable songs that have since gone on to become all time classics.  Of course the song “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopping hit, as are the character defining ones of “Belle” and “Gaston,” but it’s the Oscar-winning title song “Beauty and the Beast” that many point out as Ashman and Menken’s finest work.  Even more remarkable is the story behind the song’s recording.   Angela Lansbury believed initially that she couldn’t perform it, because she listed to Alan Menken’s more pop sounding demo tape.  When she gave a listen to Howard Ashman’s more subtle, spoken word demo, then it clicked for her, and she went into the booth and nailed it in one take.  I’m sure a couple more recordings were done for safety, but it’s that first take that we hear in the final film, which just shows how well the brilliance of Ashman’s writing, the music of Menken, and the voice Lansbury can be captured in one beautiful moment.  Sadly, Ashman didn’t live to see the finished film.  He succumbed to his fight with AIDS in March of 1991; seven months before the premiere.  And even while he was on his death bed, he continued to dictate notes for the crew of Beauty and the Beast, devoting his final days to his last great work.  To memorialize Ashman’s memory, an epitaph was added to the credits of Beauty and the Beast, honoring the man as it says “gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul.”

Releasing Beauty and the Beast in theaters not long after The Little Mermaid still was not without some risk.  But, with a forceful marketing push behind it thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg, Beauty was set to carry on the momentum that Mermaid had started.  What was especially surprising was that Katzenberg was wanted to push the film beyond it’s acceptability as family entertainment.  He wanted this movie to be taken seriously by the whole Hollywood establishment.  One way he did this was by having the film premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival.  There was only one problem; the movie wasn’t complete yet.  So, Katzenberg and Co., in order to generate some extra buzz for the movie, decided to still premiere the film as a special “Work in Progress” state, displaying an animated film for the first time publicly in a version that only those at the studio would’ve seen, completely with rough, incomplete animation.  It was rolling back the curtain in a way and showing an audience what goes into making an animated film.  The only question was would the usually elitist New York film crowd go for it.  Not only did it work, but the Work in Progress version of Beauty and the Beast received a standing ovation and immense praise at it’s premiere.  That good fortune would extend further once the movie made it’s wide debut Thanksgiving weekend.  It received almost universal praise from critics and audiences alike, and even surpassed the lofty box office of The Little Mermaid, becoming the first ever animated film to cross the $100 million mark in it’s first run.  And it didn’t stop there.  Beauty and the Beast would go on to become the first ever animated nominee for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  It ultimately would lose to The Silence of the Lambs, but Beauty still managed to break through that barrier and help to legitimize the animated film as a force to be taken seriously in Hollywood.  The movie of course did pick up awards for it’s music and Best Song, with Howard Ashman’s posthumous win shedding a much needed spotlight on recognizing the victims of HIV and AIDS in both the industry and society at large.  And after Beauty and the Beast’s success, Disney Animation was not only safe from annihilation, but was in fact thriving, cementing an era that would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance, which would also help elevate the medium of animation across the world as well.  That in itself is the greatest impact that it left behind; it made animation respectable, and not just stuff for the kids.

I can’t tell you how crucial this movie was for me as a kid.  I was 9 years old when Beauty and the Beast was released in theaters and it was such an interesting period of time that in some ways broadened my perspective of cinema.  For the first time, I remember taking note of what the film community was saying about this movie that I myself became fascinated with.  I think the year that Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture was the first time I ever watched the Academy Awards, because it was the first time something that I had seen was up for the top award.  I think I expressed disappointment when Silence of the Lambs won instead, but of course as an adult I’ve learned to appreciate that masterpiece as well, and overall generally agree with that pick in the long run.  Still, after Beauty and the Beast‘s trip to the Oscars, I began taking more interest in the critical reception of animated movies from then out, including following critics like Siskel and Ebert and Leonard Maltin, as they often opened up discussion of animated movies that I found fascinating.  Probably without movies like Beauty and the Beast hitting at the right time, who knows if I would’ve become the movie buff that I am today.  Strangely enough, of the Disney movies of the Renaissance era, Beauty and the Beast is the one that I return to the least.  I find The Little Mermaid to be the more revolutionary launching point, and Aladdin and The Lion King to be more generally exciting.  That’s not to say that I have grown to dislike Beauty and the Beast; far from it.  It’s just a movie that is more noteworthy to me because of what it accomplished over the years more than how it captivates me as a viewer.  It’s still a fantastic movie overall and still holds up 30 years later.  Even today, it’s still celebrated as a high water mark in the history of animation.  A live action remake of it even made Disney over a billion dollars globally, though of course I made my thoughts pretty clear here how I thoroughly disliked that version.  What made the original special is the way it perfectly encapsulated the best work of the artists involved working tirelessly on a short schedule, and capturing lightning in a bottle that has since gone on legitimize the artform as a part of cinema as a whole.  That is the beauty behind Beauty and the Beast, a movie that transcends the limitations of of it’s medium and demands to be seen for the true work of art that it represents.  The tale as old as time became the foundation on which the art of animation would enjoy a prosperous future well into the new millennium.  And for Disney, the animators, writers and executives who worked tirelessly on it, and the audiences that have embraced it over the years, the long legacy of Beauty and the Beast is a time old tale that has gone on to live happily ever after.

Eternals – Review

It has been a rocky road to bring Marvel’s new film Eternals to the silver screen.  One thing that it had working against it was the fact that the Eternals are not very well known outside of a dedicated fan base of comic book readers.  It would appear from the outside that making a movie based on a relatively obscure title in the Marvel canon was a foolish risk to undertake.  But, given the run of success that Marvel has had, they understandably now have the confidence to bring something like the Eternals to the big screen, and they have precedent on their side.  Only seven years ago, nobody outside comic book aficionados knew of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but James Gunn changed that forever when he released his popular 2014 film based on the series and suddenly propelled the Guardians into the Marvel A-list.  Since then, Marvel has since dug deep into their catalog to find more characters in their stable worthy of a cinematic treatment; even ones the ones that borderline on the weird and almost un-filmable.   One could say that’s where the Eternals lie, because of the incredibly dense mythology behind their story.  Still, Marvel moved forward with Eternals as a part of their Phase 4 plans, tapping indie film director Chloe Zhao with the honors of bringing the movie to reality.  But, circumstances changed pretty quickly, just as Eternals entered it’s home stretch.  Marvel had to delay the movie by a whole year after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic.  While many projects suffered setbacks because of the pandemic, Eternals oddly benefited from the delay.  While Eternals was pushed back, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), which she filmmed after working on Eternals, made it to theaters without delay, and ended up the big winner at that year’s Academy Awards, including a historic Best Director win for Zhao.  So, not only are we getting the first Marvel movie by an Oscar winning director, it’s also one from the reigning champ; a fortuitous stroke of fortune.  But, it’s a question of whether or not her voice as a filmmaker translates well enough between a small film like Nomadland and a big film like Eternals.

So, the question for most audiences will be, what are the Eternals?  The Eternals were the brain child of one of the most celebrated comic book artists of all time; Jack Kirby.  Kirby was a unique voice in the comic book world, known for his dynamic art style that emphasized bold colors and often pyschadelic imagery.  He rose prominently through the ranks at Marvel, where he developed a strong collaboration with writer Stan Lee.  Together Kirby and Lee shaped the Golden Age of Marvel comics, developing popular storylines for the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Thor, and many others.  In those years, Kirby showed a particular interest in the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, which led to the development of the Eternals and the Celestials as major players within the mythology of the comics.  The Celestials became the god like figures that governed the universe in which the Marvel characters exist, and the Eternals became the angelic super beings sent down to Earth to bring their master plans to fruition.  The Eternals comics were really where Jack Kirby managed to showcase his full power as an artist, because he was able to display his interest in the meta-physical properties of the universe, and also play around with the sense of scale on an epic level never seen before on the comics page.  In his later years, Kirby would cross over into Marvel’s rival DC Comics, where he helped to co-create the New Gods, another collection of cosmological super-beings that share much in common with the Eternals.  If there were ever a Mount Rushmore for comic book icons, Kirby easily would be on it.  Given his very distinctive style, it’s been rather difficult to translate his art into something that would work in the movies.  Director Taika Waititi made a valiant attempt at capturing the Jack Kirby style in Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  But, undertaking Jack Kirby’s pet project of Eternals would require delving further into the odd and meta-physical than anything Marvel has done before.  The question is, did Chloe Zhao manage to successfully bring Jack Kirby’s vision to life or was it best left for the page.

The world is still recovering from the event known as the Blip in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Avengers managed to successfully undo the curse made by Thanos which resulted in half of life in the universe disappearing with the snap of a finger.  But, unbeknownst to humanity, the sudden return of the population has awakened another sleeping threat within the Earth itself.  The Celestials have planned for thousands of years an event called “The Emergence” to take place on Earth, and that time has now come.  To ensure that Earth was ready, the Celestials sent down 10 super-beings known as the Eternals to protect humanity from a parasitic race of alien predators known as the Deviants.  The Eternals have ensured the safety of humanity to grow and evolve without the Deviants wiping them out, but they’ve been instructed by the Prime Celestial, Arishem the Judge, to not interfere in any other human conflict.  Through the millennia and centuries after, the Eternals continue to live anonymously among the humans, waiting for the Celestials to order them home.  After the Blip, the Prime Eternal Ajak (Selma Hayek) has been told that the Emergence is imminent, and it’s time for the Eternals to reconvene, despite having grown apart over the years.  Sersei (Gemma Chan) has enjoyed a happy life in London as a science teacher, with her boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) by her side.  Her only other Eternal contact has been Sprite (Lia McHugh), who has been isolated primarily because she still appears as a child after thousands of years.  One night, they are suddenly attacked by a rogue Deviant, only to be saved by Ikaris (Richard Madden), who has been called to assemble the Eternals together by Ajak.  The remaining Eternals are scattered across the globe, with Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) living it up as a Bollywood star, Druig (Barry Keoghan) living in exile in the Amazon rain forest, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) staying hidden collecting artifacts from around the world, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) living a simple life with his husband and son, and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) helping to protect Thena (Angelina Jolie), who has suffered memory loss.  But, a mystery remains for them all, which is why the Deviants have returned and questions rise over whether or not they should stay to help save humanity from the Emergence.

Suffice to say, Eternals is not an easy pill to swallow.  Coming in with a lot of pre-studied knowledge of Jack Kirby’s dense mythology of the Eternals and their place within the larger Marvel Universe probably helps, but a lot of audiences may be left scratching their heads while watching this movie.  There is no doubt that Eternals is a gamble for Marvel, and thus far it’s been a bumpy road for them.  Critics have not been kind to the movie, making Eternals the first ever rotten scored MCU film on Rotten Tomatoes.  It will be interesting to see how that will translate into the audience response.  One of the things that people have pointed out so far is that Eternals is a very different Marvel movie, both in style and narrative.  For some, this is a detriment, because it makes the story uneven and un-moored, but for someone like me, it’s the exact kind of thing I was hoping for with Eternals.  After watching two back to back formulaic entries from Marvel that left me a bit underwhelmed (this summer’s Black Widow and Shang-Chi), I was happy to see a Marvel movie break formula and try something different, even if it is a little messy.  I found myself on the whole actually enjoying Eternals for the most part, and that’s largely due to the fact that it wasn’t going out of it’s way to hit all the right notes, and instead try to be it’s own thing.  At the same time, it’s not too much of a departure for Marvel.  It still felt like it was a part of the MCU, and even had some of the familiar tone as well.  But, what Chloe Zhao managed to do was take the already pre-established Marvel universe aesthetic and tell a whole different kind of story within it.  What I believe drew Chloe Zhao to this movie was the idea of telling a story on both a cosmic and intimate scale all at once.  This movie delves deeper into the mythology of the Marvel Universe than anything we’ve seen before; literally showing us the Gods pulling the strings of the cosmos and establishing the Universe’s creation story within that.  At the same time, it’s also a personal tale about a family of immortal beings, and the focus of the movie is less on the action taking place and more of the internal struggle that the characters are going through.

For a lot of people, these two forces at play in the narrative may not gel together, and I would be lying if I said there was nothing with the movie.  It does feel at times that Zhao is striving a little too hard to reach for a deeper meaning within her story, while at the same time still delivering on the promised expectations of the MCU.  For some people, the disappointment may come from there not being a lot of substance behind the trippier Jack Kirby elements within the movie.  I honestly get the frustration people might feel with this movie, and there were many things that I wish Chloe had devoted more time to.  One of the biggest letdowns are the Deviants.  Conceptually and realized within the movie, these characters are about as bland of a antagonistic force as they come.  Even in the grand scheme of the movie they really don’t serve much of purpose other than being an obstacle for the characters, so why bother including them at all, as well as build them up to be this threatening element within the story.  Another complaint levied at the film is that it is too long, running 157 minutes, making it one of the longest in the whole MCU (only Infinity War and Endgame run longer) and yes, I can attest that you do feel the length of this movie much more than some of the better paced MCU films.  But, at the same the slower moments in Eternals were among my favorite.  I really appreciated that Chloe Zhao devotes a lot more time towards building an atmosphere in her movie and also allowing her characters to talk things through rather than having the movie jump quickly from plot point to plot point.  While many Marvel movies have managed to get away with that formulaic method in the past, it was really starting to feel forced thus far into Phase Four.  My favorite post Endgame stuff from the MCU so far has been the limited series on Disney+, because those too have broken out of formula.  While Eternals is a little choppier in it’s success at breaking formula compared to the Disney+ shows, I am nevertheless happy that it’s trying.  And the fact that it’s doing it’s hardest to expand the universe itself is also another enriching part of the movie experience that I had.  Eternals shows us that we really have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the story possibilities of the MCU.

Of all the things that I believe works best in Eternals, it would be the characters themselves.  I really appreciate that most of the runtime of this movie is devoted to character development.  For the most part, the movie is really about a family coming back together and re-discovering the love that they had all left behind once they parted ways.  More so than any other Marvel movie, this is an ensemble, with no character really taking the lead and all of them instead getting a fair amount to shine individually.  The movie also jumps back and forth through time, showing us how these Eternals have managed to live among the humans for centuries.  I really love the fact that they never hid themselves, and instead became the inspiration for legends that have been passed down through various different cultures, all culminating to where they are today.  Angelina Jolie’s Thena for example became the basis for the concept of the Greek goddess of war Athena for example.  It’s a smart way of showing these characters through their humanity rather than their purpose through the story.  The plot is less motivated by the ticking time clock of the Emergence and more by the internal conflicts brought to the surface as the characters come back together.  For all the different Eternals, each actor feels appropriately cast, and I’m surprised how the lesser known actors carry just as much weight within the story as the better known ones.  Angelina Jolie and Selma Hayek both shine in their respective roles, with Hayek’s Ajak displaying graceful maternal authority and Jolie’s Thena showing both inspiring strength as well as tragic vulnerability.  Kumail Nanjiani and Brian Tyree Henry also bring a welcome comical side to the movie, but in different enough ways that help to distinguish themselves from each other.  One particular scene stealer is Barry Keoghan as Druig, a character with a shadowy disposition that could have been portrayed in a more heavy-handed sort of way, but instead he hits just the right tone.  Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Don Lee and Lauren Ridloff all do well in their roles as well.  And while her performance is still fine, I feel like the weakest link in the cast is Sersei.  She is there to be the audience surrogate as the POV character, and that unfortunately makes her feel like too much of a blank slate with not much substance.  Still, the movie succeeds the most at making us care for the characters at the heart of the story, and that for the most part helps to make it an exceptionally moving story.

While the movie succeeds at capturing the intimate side of the characters story very well, it also does an amazing job of capturing the scope and scale of the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For a director of Chloe Zhao’s pedigree, she actually proves to be very adept at making a movie of this scale.  We know that she has the ability to make a beautifully shot movie, as the Oscar-winning Nomadland showed us.  But, it’s stunning to see that same style done on a massive Marvel-sized budget.  One thing that she brings to the Marvel universe that feels especially fresh is the use of natural lighting.  If there has been one complaint common throughout the MCU movies, it’s that there is a lack of diversity in the way they look, and that’s largely because they are all made the same way; with a lot of green screen and digital matteing.  A lot of the Marvel movies take their final form in post-production, and because of that assembly line approach, they more or less have that same look to them.  Eternals feels refreshingly different, with a lot more of the movie having been shot on real locations and with natural lighting.  Chloe Zhao especially likes her “golden hour” lighting, which at times gives the movie a very Terrence Malick like feel, which I am sure is intentional.  The film, surprisingly, was shot by cinematographer Ben Davis who has worked on a number of Marvel movies already, including Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Doctor Strange (2016), and Captain Marvel (2019).  This movie marks a departure for him too as a result, and it’s pleasing to see him branch out and rise to the challenge of meeting Chloe Zhao’s vision.  And while the movie does make the most out of it’s use of the natural world, including some truly epic moments captured at the Canary Islands, it also doesn’t disappoint with the more insane visual effects moments.  In particular, whenever the Celestials show up, it is awe-inspiring.  Arishem, the Prime Celestial that we see the most in this movie, is portrayed with a sense of overwhelming colossal scale unlike anything we have seen in the MCU before.  Whenever he appeared on screen, the film fills out to the full IMAX image, making his presence really feel biblical and overwhelming.  It really makes someone like me excited to see what Marvel has planned next if we are headed in this direction with the MCU.  Overall, this may be probably the most visually captivating Marvel movie we have seen yet, and it will hopefully set a new high bar for the franchise to follow in the next several phases.

Granted, this movie will not be to everyone’s taste.  I totally understand the mixed reception that people are getting from this movie so far, and they are not wrong to have those reservations.  For me, however, there was enough there in this movie to make me feel like I had a good time watching it.  The sense of scale is awe-inspiring, and it really shows that Chloe Zhao can deliver a movie on any scale and budget while still retaining her unique voice.  I also really liked the characters we are introduced to here, and I’m excited to see where the characters go as they become more involved in the overall narrative of the MCU.  I also think that this movie succeeds as a love letter to the work of Jack Kirby.  Here, we are seeing his mad imagination brought to full life, with both the Eternals and Celestials hinting at a more expansive universe yet to explore in the years ahead.  The movie also is one that takes risks, and that is something that I refreshingly want to see happen more in the MCU.  I know that the Marvel formula has worked effectively well for them and built them into a cinematic force that is unrivaled right now, but the longer it goes on unchanged, the more we are going to get bored of it.  I’m grateful that a movie like Eternals has come along that slows things down and tries to be a bit more serious while at the same time a little weirder than the average comic book movie.  It’s also a movie that prides itself on it’s diversity; showing us a cast of characters that display cultural identities from across the globe, while also covering different sexualities, disabilities, and age limitations as a part of their characters as well.  There is so much breaking of new ground with this movie that I hope continues into the future with more Eternals films as well as with all the future Marvel films.  Now, is it the best movie Marvel has made?  Of course not.  It has it’s flaws, but none of those overwhelmed my overall good experience watching this movie.  It is certainly far better than Marvel at their worst (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World) and of the three Marvel movies I have seen thus far this year, it was definitely the best of that bunch.  I actually think this might be a movie that will alienate some people initially, but will get reassessed years later and be viewed as a very pivotal movie in the history of the MCU.  As imperfect as it is, it’s still got enough to warrant a viewing, and on the largest screen possible.  I always respect a major studio taking risks, even if it doesn’t always work out for them, and seeing something that challenged me rather than just delivering the essentials is a cinematic act worth being eternally grateful for.

Rating: 8/10