Character Spotlight: Princess Atta

Every now and then, I decided that I’d like to write a post about one specific character and what makes them stand out, either to me personally or to general audiences.  Let’s start with Princess Atta from Pixar’s second animated film, A Bug’s Life.

 

AttaCompared to other beloved Disney and Pixar characters, Princess Atta isn’t exactly a household name.  A Bug’s Life itself doesn’t get too much attention from Disney anymore.  Nonetheless, I think Atta’s pretty interesting when you compare her to some of Disney’s other princesses and love interests in talking animal movies.

Before Merida came on to the scene and reminded us that a princess has more responsibilities than dancing, singing, and looking pretty, Pixar gave us Princess Atta.  Her mother, the Queen, rules the colony on Ant Island.  During A Bug’s Life, Atta has to learn how to be a queen herself and she’s not very good at it.  Or is she?

Unlike other Strong Female Characters, Atta isn’t reluctant to lead because she’d rather go off and do something else.  She genuinely wants to be a good queen.  That’s her whole problem.  She’s so nervous about the possibility of failure that she doesn’t inspire much confidence in anybody but her mother and Flik.  I really like the scene where she opens up to Flik for the first time and tells him about what’s going on inside her head:

“I know what everyone really thinks. […] Everyone.  The whole colony.  Nobody really believes I can do this job.  It’s like…they’re all watching me.  Just…just…”

And Flik finishes with, “Waiting for you to screw up.”

A Bug’s Life never confirms or denies whether the ant colony feels that way about Atta.  The opening scene shows one Council member calming her down and two others commenting that the Queen has “enough on her plate already, training her daughter.”  However, they do credit her with the idea to send Flik off to the city and cheer the plan to build the bird when she encourages them to do it.  So it might be all inside her head.  We just don’t know if Atta’s assessment is accurate or not, any more than we know how real people view us.  So, nice touch by Pixar.

Going off of that, it’s neat how Atta gets to have her own character arc that’s related to Flik’s, but isn’t solely based around falling in love with him.  She has her own family and her own goals.  Though she does come to admire Flik and treat him better, and his actions incite her character development, it’s all about Atta gaining confidence in herself.  She comes to like Flik because of what he does for the colony.  She gets aggravated by his antics mostly when she thinks they’re hurting the colony (and when they reflect poorly on her).  More than anything else, she wants what’s best for her people.

Additionally, Atta is aware that her own insecurities cause problems and tries to fix them.  In the aforementioned scene where she talks to Flik and he finishes her sentence about screwing up, that’s when she realizes that he deals with her fears every day.  He knows that nobody likes him and he knows that no matter how hard he tries to make things better, he still makes mistakes.  So Atta apologizes for the way she’s treated him in the past and tries to make amends.

Think about it: when does that ever happen in Disney films, or any animated family films?  How often do we see a female character admitting that she’s flawed and apologizing for it, especially to her love interest?  It usually doesn’t happen even when they have flaws.  Mulan didn’t apologize to the army; they needed to apologize to her.  Tiana didn’t have to apologize to Naveen, nor did Pocahontas ever apologize to anybody, or Jasmine, or Belle, or Cinderella.  Most of the time, they’re victims in some way and others need to help them and/or learn to appreciate them better.

Oh, and Atta saves Flik twice in the third act, not the other way around.  She flies in front of Hopper to stop him from squishing Flik, then outflies all of his friends when Hopper grabs Flik and takes off.  Flik ultimately comes up with the plan to kill Hopper once and for all, but he couldn’t have done it without Atta.

As a kid, I didn’t think much of Atta and couldn’t understand why Flik fell in love with her, when, by her own admission, she wasn’t very nice to him.  But as an adult, I admire how Pixar tried to do something different with this type of character: the princess who isn’t good at being a princess and the love interest who needs to learn to appreciate the protagonist better.  The writers treat her like a person (well, an ant) with her own goals and struggles, and as a result, her decisions feel more natural and less like “we need her to do/say this thing because that’s what this type of character does.”

So, kudos to you, Pixar.  Thank you for not taking us down Road of the “Strong Female Character” and giving us interesting, more layered female characters instead.

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Spiderman: Homecoming Review

Disclaimer: I’m not a Marvel comics reader.  I’ve read a few and enjoyed them, but not enough to be an expert on anything.  All I really know is that I want to see a Kamala Khan movie already.  That’s about it.  So I don’t have an opinion on how well this movie represents the Spiderman comics.

My faith in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been restored!  I’d been feeling a little bit “meh” about some of their Phase 2 movies and Civil War, but I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the new Spiderman so much that I’m looking forward to what’s next again.  They’re well-made, well-told, fun movies.

Like Guardians 2Spiderman: Homecoming stands out by having a great villain: Michael Keaton as the Vulture.  His connection and relationship to Peter doesn’t start to get truly interesting until the third act. But his backstory and motivations aren’t needlessly complicated and he serves as a good foil to Spiderman.  I’m not going to give away any spoilers, so I’ll just say that I really liked the way his arc got resolved at the end of the movie.

Tom Holland continues to give an entertaining performance as Peter Parker.  In this movie, he’s just gotten back from his big battle with Team Stark in Civil War.  Tony says that he’ll call with future assignments…and then he doesn’t.  He thinks Peter has potential, but also knows that he’s dealing with an eager teenager who could easily get killed in action.  The film’s conflict centers around Peter trying to prove that he’s capable of officially joining the Avengers while also trying to navigate high school drama and stop the Vulture.

These three different narrative threads integrate well together and Homecoming has good pacing.  For example, Peter uses a school event in Washington D.C. as a means of transportation when he needs to track the Vulture’s movements out of state.  And as you’d expect, Peter hopes that his investigation of the Vulture will impress Tony Stark.  I appreciate that the plot never gets too complicated but doesn’t play dumb either.  It’s full of jokes concerning Peter balancing a normal teen life with his double life as Spiderman, yet these jokes don’t get old after a while.

Speaking of which, it’s nice to watch a Spiderman movie that didn’t play up the drama of Peter’s secret identity as much.  I know everyone loves Spiderman 2 from the Sam Raimi trilogy and I agree that it’s a good movie.  But I felt that it rammed you from all sides with Peter’s struggles until the third act.  Everything was going wrong for the guy in that movie.  He loses his job because he keeps abandoning it to be Spiderman.  His best friend hates him because of his connection to Spiderman.  His crush, Mary Jane, hates him because he can never make it to her play, because he keeps showing up late after fighting crime as Spiderman.  Then he watches her get engaged to another man.  He’s failing college because he’s spending all of his time crime fighting as Spiderman.  On top of that, he’s so overwhelmed by his life falling apart that he doubts whether he can still be a hero- and that doubt causes his powers to stop working at crucial moments.  The man cannot catch a break.

There’s nothing wrong with a hero who struggles; I prefer one of them over a hero who can do no wrong.  Still, I liked that Homecoming got the point across without dragging it out so much like the Sam Raimi films did.  His secret hero work can and does have negative impacts on his life without utterly ruining him.

It helps that Peter’s best friend knows his secret identity this time around.  Ned’s a fun character.  The way he and Peter react to the whole thing feels so real.  Of course he’d have so many questions about how Peter’s powers work and what he does with the Avengers.  Of course he’d struggle not to tell everyone and of course they’d be tempted to use Peter’s alter ego to impress girls at parties.

The rest of the cast works too, although Peter’s love interest, Liz Allan, doesn’t get a whole lot to do.  I like where they’re going with Michelle, the girl who makes sarcastic comments at everyone else’s expense throughout the movie.  The decision to make Flash more of an academic rival to Peter was an interesting choice.  That said, he’s still a bully who makes Peter’s life miserable, so he hasn’t changed that much, as far as I can tell.

Last, but not least, Spiderman: Homecoming has some spectacular action sequences.  The final aerial battle literally had me on the edge of my seat.  Obviously, Spiderman’s going to survive for more films, but he gets knocked around so much in this movie that it can be easy to forget that he will.  You can see why Tony Stark worries about Peter Parker.  He barely makes it out alive.

There’s also a nice touch of realism in the final battle after Peter lands on the ground and the sound becomes muted.  Having flown in an airplane on vacation recently, I struggled with my hearing because of the air pressure and it makes sense that would happen to superheroes too- especially if it’s accompanied by explosions.  This detail adds to the tension as well.  If Peter’s having temporary trouble with his hearing, then he can’t hear Vulture coming for him.  It was a small addition that didn’t last long, but a good one.

Although Spiderman: Homecoming isn’t a very deep film, it’s a lot of fun.  I’m very glad that I saw it and can’t wait for the sequels!

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” Review

Warning: There will be some spoilers in this review and lots of ranting.

Oh boy.  I have feelings about this movie.

But first, allow me to backtrack.  Thirteen years ago, one of my friends put her DVD of Curse of the Black Pearl in my hands and told me that I needed to watch it.  So, over the course of Memorial Day weekend, I did.  It was love at first sight.  Everything about the movie felt perfect: the characters, the story, the jokes, the action, and the music.

(Okay, and I had a crush on Orlando Bloom, but that’s faded away and I still enjoy the movie and Will Turner’s character.)

Curse of the Black Pearl also helped to ignite my interest in screenwriting.  If you like learning about the filmmaking process, definitely check out the screenwriters’ commentary for the movie.  They talk about the different drafts they went through and the choices they made that eventually made the movie a success.  They show how every scene and character has some importance to the story.  Even the soldiers, Murtagh and Mulroy, push the plot along by revealing that Captain Jack knows about the Black Pearl.  They’re comic relief, but if they didn’t have their comedic encounter with Jack, they wouldn’t be able to mention his interest in Barbossa’s ship and Will wouldn’t have come up with the plan to team up with him.

Unfortunately, the fifth Pirates film does not have much in the way of such character moments.

The plot goes like this: Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry, wants to save Will from the curse of the Flying Dutchman.  He’s studied all kinds of sea legends and learns about the Trident of Poseidon, which supposedly breaks all curses.  So he goes to find Captain Jack Sparrow for help.

Meanwhile, Jack’s lost his touch.  His crew abandons him, the Black Pearl’s still trapped in one of Blackbeard’s bottles, and he has no treasure.  So he trades his magic compass for one last bottle of rum.  Unbeknownst to him, “betraying” the compass unleashes his biggest fear: a ghost pirate hunter named Captain Salazar.  Salazar starts murdering pirate ships right and left to find and kill Jack, who outsmarted and killed him once before.

Finally, there’s the third member of the trio: Carina Smyth.  She’s an intelligent young astronomer searching for the Trident based on clues that her father left behind in a mysterious journal.

So, I got hyped for this movie as soon as I heard that Orlando Bloom planned to come back as Will Turner.  He’s my favorite character.  I took it to be a good sign that Disney learned from its past mistakes with On Stranger Tides.  Captain Jack Sparrow should never be the main character of any story.  He’s only funny when he’s got pure, heroic straight men to play against.

Alas, Dead Men Tell No Tales is two hours and nine minutes of wasted potential at every turn.  Henry and Carina are nice characters, but we rarely get to see them truly interact with Captain Jack Sparrow.  The story just moves from big action/comedy scene to the next with nothing substantial to hold it together.  Remember how Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest had little scenes that would reveal more about the characters and how they related to each other?  Like Jack telling Will about his father’s past life as a pirate, or Jack and Elizabeth teasing each other about his secret desire to do something heroic and her secret desire to break all the rules and become a pirate?

Nothing like that ever happens in Dead Men Tell No Tales.  The most we get is Jack teasing Henry about his crush on Carina.  It drove me nuts because Henry Turner has a lot of history to his character.  He’s the grandson of Bootstrap Bill, Jack’s old friend.  He’s the son of Will and Elizabeth Turner.  He’s on a quest to break the curse that binds Will to the Flying Dutchman, and Jack’s the one who cursed him in the first place.  Surely Jack would have some interest in Henry’s goal?  Surely they’d talk about it at SOME point, right?

NOPE.

Jack’s got no investment in the adventure at all.  It’s been like this since At World’s End.  In the first film, he wanted his ship back and nothing would stop him from reclaiming it.  In the sequel, he desperately wanted to get out of the deal with Davy Jones and escape the Kraken.  But then, with each passing film, he’s become less and less interested in the events of the story.  The crew had to drag him out of Davy Jones’ Locker and to the meeting of the Brethren Court.  He got shanghaied onto Blackbeard’s ship in On Stranger Tides.  And he gets pushed into this adventure too, and just lets things happen as they will.  His rivalry with Salazar appears to be one-sided and he doesn’t show interest in finding the Trident.  He “wants” the Trident because Henry tells him that it’s what he needs to save himself, not because he personally wants it.

If Jack doesn’t care about what’s happening, why should we care?

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Then there’s the Trident itself.  One could easily replace that Trident with just about anything else and the story wouldn’t change.  In comparison, the chest full of Aztec gold felt integral to the story of Curse of the Black Pearl.  It was always present in some way, either through the medallion that Elizabeth stole from Will, or the chest itself in two important, plot-changing scenes.  We didn’t get to see the Dead Man’s Chest until the end of that movie.  But there was some great build-up to it with the drawing of the key, Tia Dalma’s tale, and Davy Jones himself.  It’s his heart inside the chest, and he’s the big villain of the story, so it always feels important.

The fifth movie opens with Henry saying, “Hey Dad, I found a legend that might break your curse,” and that’s it.  We don’t get a sense of why the Trident exists or why it’s hidden or why it can break curses.  We’re just supposed to accept that it does.  It might not be that big of a deal, but to me, that made it so much less interesting as a result.

Javier Bardem is a talented actor, but his character is just a combination of Captain Barbossa, Davy Jones, and Cutler Beckett: an undead pirate hunter who hates Jack Sparrow and can’t step on land.  The movie tries to establish him as a fearsome enemy from Jack’s past, but it doesn’t feel genuine the way it did with the other three villains. See, they got introduced to the story when we still didn’t know very much about Captain Jack Sparrow.  And we did know that Jack had some kind of run-in with the East India Trading Company because of his pirate brand, so that didn’t come out of nowhere.

But by the time Movie 5 came around, with no hint that Jack ever had a significant encounter with a big-time Spanish pirate hunter, I didn’t feel the rivalry between them. It also didn’t help that they didn’t have much screen time together, and when they did, it was for big action scenes.  There’s none of the verbal sparring that Jack had with Barbossa, Beckett, or even Norrington.

That being said, Carina is a fun character. She’s an intelligent young astronomer who has no patience for the antics of the pirates around her. Normally, she would have been a wonderful addition to the franchise. There’s a genuinely funny scene where she and Jack are both about to be executed. Carina uses the opportunity for her last words to launch into a speech about how stupid people are for thinking she’s a witch just because she’s smart. Jack can’t stand listening to it and it turns into an argument between the two of them trying to get the executioners to kill one of them first just to shut the other one up.

I won’t spoil Carina’s real backstory or how it relates to the rest of the franchise.  I’ll just say that the secret behind her past was surprisingly sweet.  When another character put the pieces together, I could feel myself getting invested in the movie again. That’s why I came: I like the characters and I want to know more about them. But of course it didn’t last long.

Finally, I feel sorry for anyone who went to see this movie just for Keira Knightley.  At least I got to watch a nice introduction where a young Henry confronts Will about breaking his curse.  Elizabeth didn’t get any lines at all.  The Pirate King is only there to kiss Will at the end of the movie in a gorgeous dress.  What did she think about her son running away from home to find Captain Jack Sparrow? What did she think about the nature of Will’s curse suddenly changing for no apparent reason? Did she still have any responsibilities as the Pirate King? Who knows?

At the end of the day, Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like a weak retread of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There’s a young man and a young woman who become the new heroes in a preexisting franchise, and they are aided on their quest by an extremely popular character from the previous franchise. There’s references to other important characters from the series and so on and so forth.

Unlike Jack/Henry/Carina, Finn and Rey had an incredibly sweet friendship that was given time to develop. The plot brings them together, but they stay together because they care about each other.  Henry and Carina also like each other, but they and Jack stay together because of their individual reasons for wanting the Trident.  They stay together out of necessity.  They never felt like a team to me.

Remember how in Curse of the Black Pearl, Commodore Norrington orders his men to sink his ship so that Jack and Will can’t steal it, because “I’d rather see her at the bottom of the ocean than in the hands of a pirate?”  I think I understand how he felt now.  On the one hand, I love the Pirates franchise, so I should want to see more Pirates films.  But if this is what the franchise has become, maybe I’d rather Disney just let it go.

“Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” Review

I’m not sure that the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is better than the original film, but it’s definitely a worthy follow-up and a fun movie.  I loved it!

Warning: this review contains some minor spoilers.

In Vol. 2, the Guardians find themselves on the run from an entire civilization that they’ve managed to offend (because of course they did), and in the process, they are rescued by a man named Ego who claims to be Peter Quill’s father.  Meanwhile, Yondu gets recruited by the Sovereign (the civilization the Guardians offended) to hunt down the group, but he’s not sure if he can really go through with it for Peter’s sake.

First, I have to admire a movie that sets up a big opening action scene…and then focuses the camera on Groot dancing to ’80’s music while the other Guardians fight the monster in the background.  It sets the irreverent tone of the rest of the movie.  And that’s not the only funny scene.  When it comes to humor, some sequels fall into the trap of repeating jokes from the first movie over and over until you’re sick of them.  One can only hear, “Why is the rum gone?” so many times before it loses its touch.  Thankfully, Guardians 2 avoids that problem.  The characters still have the same personality quirks, but not the exact same dialogue as before.

But what I really love the most about Guardians of the Galaxy is the relationship between the Guardians.  They’re set up like the Avengers: a group of “heroes” that often bicker with each other, leaving the villains wondering how these guys can ever work together to save the world.  Unlike the Avengers, they sincerely care about each other underneath the bickering and they demonstrate it.  When Peter and Rocket fight over who can fly the ship better and Gamora yells at them for not focusing on the asteroid field, it’s treated as a joke.  Even when Gamora and Peter have a serious fight about Ego, it doesn’t last long.  And as Yondu points out, as soon as Rocket realizes that the group’s in danger, he goes flying across space (almost killing himself in the process) to rescue his friends- because he clearly cares about them.

It’s so refreshing to see them act like the dysfunctional “found family” that Tumblr always wanted the Avengers to be.  When done right, the whole Teeth-Clenched Teamwork trope can be fun, but there’s always the risk that the audience won’t care about the characters if the characters don’t care about each other.  For example, as much as I like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and as much as I think Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are underrated, there’s something to be said about the way the heroes played off of each other.  Everyone had their own motives and they were more than willing to stab each other in the back to get what they wanted.  So who are we supposed to care about the most and why should we care about him/her more than the others?

Even Nebula and Gamora, who seem like they’re ready to kill each other, end up working out their issues.  Not to mention Peter’s relationship with Yondu- in the first movie, we can see that Yondu’s got a soft spot for Peter, but he still tries to kill him a few times.  By the second movie, we learn more about their backstory and discover how much Yondu has secretly done to protect Peter for most of his life.

Speaking of Yondu, I didn’t like him very much in the first Guardians film, to the point where I didn’t want to see him join the team.  By the time he did join the team in the sequel, I felt ecstatic and wanted him to stay.  I won’t say any more so that this review doesn’t have too many spoilers, but he improved as a character so much in this movie.

Another welcome addition to the team is Mantis.  She and Drax develop a sweet friendship and she fits right in with the rest of the quirky team.  Plus, it’s nice to see another woman on the team.  I’m looking forward to seeing her in more Marvel films.

The action scenes are thrilling and hilarious, just as they should be in a Guardians of the Galaxy film.  Additionally, the writers did a better job with the villains this time around.  They’re not perfect, but they’re more memorable than Ronan the Destroyer.

If you’re looking for a fun time at the movies, definitely check out Guardians of the Galaxy 2.  You don’t even need to see the first movie to enjoy it, although I highly recommend it.  The characters play off of each other nicely, the settings are colorful and unique, the ’80’s music is fun to hear, and nobody ever takes the movie too seriously, which makes the whole experience a cut above the other Marvel films.  That being said, if any parents read this blog, I’d like to add that it is a very violent movie with a lot of sex jokes and a particularly disturbing death scene, so keep that in mind.  It’s PG-13 for a reason.

Everyone else…WE ARE GROOT!

Musical Monday #33: Taylor Davis’ Star Wars Medley

May the Fourth be with you, my friends!

If you want to listen to a fan remix that will get you into the spirit of Star Wars Month, this is the droid you’re looking for:

Taylor Davis is an extremely talented violinist who recreates songs from many different soundtracks, including Disney-related music.  If you like this medley, you should also check out her versions of “Duel of the Fates” and “He’s a Pirate.”  I’ve been a fan ever since I decided to buy her album, “Melodies of Hyrule,” an amazing collection of violin remixes from The Legend of Zelda video games.

The video is so cool to watch too and I love how Davis selected those three songs to play out like a battle between the Dark and Light sides of the Force.  I just wish it could’ve been a longer medley since John Williams created so many iconic themes for Star Wars: “Battle of the Heroes,” “Across the Stars,” “Princess Leia’s Theme,” the actual main theme of the series, etc.  Maybe the song would’ve felt overcrowded otherwise.

I know Star Wars only counts as “Disney” in the most technical sense because most of the movies and their corresponding soundtracks were created before Disney bought the franchise.  But they do own it now, and I love Star Wars, so it counts in my book.  If you love listening to soundtracks from movies, video games, or anime, I highly recommend listening to more of Taylor Davis’ versions.  They’re incredible.