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The Life of P

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The Myth Factory

NO SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR CONTAINED BELOW

Human beings are storytelling creatures, as we are oft told.  Usually this is about the narratives through which we interpret the events in our lives, but on a larger scale stories tell us from where we came and allow us to conceptualise our place in an increasingly large universe. Over time our most sacred stories transitioned from oral folklore and mythology into codified religion and, in doing so, they gradually lost their mutability to become dogmatic truths. As a species, we lost something in this shift.

In 2009, Disney made a surprising acquisition of Marvel for $4.29 billion. Now, with billions of dollars in revenue from the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes perfect financial sense. But in 2009, we were only two films into what Marvel termed “Phase One” of the MCU following the breakout success of Iron Man. The only other release, The Incredible Hulk, had a lukewarm reception. It can be viewed as a shrewd commercial gamble but I think that misunderstands their intention. Disney’s real motivation only became clear to me several years later when, in 2012, it purchased Lucasfilm, ostensibly paying $4.06 billion for a single franchise, Star Wars. Unlike Marvel at the time of the acquisition, everyone knew that the Star Wars label was essentially a licence to print money, so few questioned the business decision. Most of the scrutiny came from fans concerned about the consequences for a fictional universe dear to their hearts. At the time I pointed out those fears were misplaced given the expert curation of the MCU following the Marvel acquisition and George Lucas’ own inability to manage his creation. Disney’s stewardship has been more uneven in respect of Star Wars (quite aside from mixed reactions to the films, the dearth of videogames following an exclusive licensing deal with EA is a travesty), but the acquisition builds to the same goal.

For several hundred years, the most retold stories outside of religion were fairytales, be they the Germanic tales we associate with the Brothers Grimm, the Middle Eastern tales collected in One Thousand and One Nights or the countless folk tales from Africa, China and beyond. These continued the oral tradition of being retold and altered, with each storyteller imparting something of themselves. These are the stories upon which The House of Mouse truly built its empire, moving from amusing cartoons to stories with deep societal roots which then became synonymous with childhood. Although I may dislike the “Disneyfiction” of darker tales, such retelling is perfectly in keeping with their folk story origins.

In the 20th century, comicbooks were a major disruptive force. With DC and Marvel at the forefront, we saw the creation of a new mythology of alien gods and human heroes. This mythic nature may be clearest with Marvel’s literal translation of the Norse pantheon into the Asgardian race, but is equally true of super-powered mutants and those caught in their wake. These were also mutable characters who could change with the times, routinely killed off and resurrected to reflect the values and needs of each decade. The core elements of the characters remained the same, but they provided a lens through which to perceive rapidly changing times. It is no accident that their rise occurred alongside increasing secularisation, because for many these were allegorical stories that served a similar purpose as religious teachings in calibrating our moral compass through lessons like Spider-man’s familiar, “with great power comes great responsibility”. And if you question the cultural impact that comics had before the rise of their colossal movie franchises, consider 2007’s mainstream US press coverage and backlash to the “unpatriotic” decision to kill Captain America in a post-9/11 story arc.

Amazing Fantasy #15, Aug. 1962

These mythological intentions are even clearer with Star Wars. George Lucas has overtly espoused his appreciation for John Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he examines what he terms the “monomyth”, a single overarching story that humans in unconnected societies have been telling one another around the world and across the ages, a story that appears fundamental to what it means to be human. He identifies all the points of commonality and maps out “the hero’s journey”, which Lucas slavishly used as a template to craft Luke Skywalker’s adventure. The extent to which the resulting story resonated with its audience can scarcely be described.

This, then, is what Disney has been acquiring beyond its original foothold in fairytale and folklore: the sources of modern mythology, control over the central stories that we tell (and retell) outside of religion. We see now the culmination of the MCU’s ten-year story in Avengers: Infinity War, drawing together characters it has spent a decade establishing. Even within that timescale we can see societal shifts emerge and become incorporated, such as Black Panther upending the perceived wisdom that a black blockbuster could be a financial success, whilst also posing searching questions about racial identity and responsibility or Civil War’s (underdeveloped) questions about identity registration and the nature of a society’s sense of security.

Many are baffled by the success of the Marvel and Star Wars films. This may be because they seem childish when compared to more serious fare or because it is easy to view them in the same way as forgettable action flicks. They are fantasies and they are silly. For several years my advice has been to approach these films specifically with the concept of mythology in mind. When we read the stories of the Norse gods, we don’t decry the ridiculousness of Loki’s children including a large wolf, a gigantic snake and an eight-legged horse, or that Odin keeps the severed head of wise Mimir alive by using some herbs and singing. These sorts of stories are not bound by that kind of cold logic. Rather, it is the shape of the story, and individual interactions, from which we learn  a few truths about the world, what it means to be human and, perhaps, ourselves.

The Connection Genre

Paperman

A couple of days ago, Disney uploaded the entirety of their new Oscar-nominated animated short Paperman, which opened screenings of the feature-length Wreck-It Ralph. It is a beautiful six and a half minutes about a chance connection between two office workers with a little swelling Disney magic thrown in by the end. It’s interesting to note that that the impressive 2D style is actually the result of 3D modelling.

The first half of the story may seem rather familiar to long time readers who will have seen the utterly charming live action short Signs — about a similar connection between two office workers in opposite buildings — when I mentioned it a few years back. I am evidently not the only one to make the connection with the video generating a great deal of traffic over the past few days, along with some unwarranted criticism of Paperman for likely taking a little inspiration from it.

Watching the two on my way into work yesterday (other than providing a surprisingly positive boost to my morning) made me realise that, whilst I have developed an ingrained aversion to genre labels, perhaps my favourite genre of films is best described as “Connection”. It’s different to romantic drama or comedy in that there is no reason the connection need be romantic or even limited to humans. The nebulous connection between Bob and Charlotte in Lost in Translation is precisely what I love about the film, whilst the bond that forms gradually, uncertainly between Hiccup and Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon is both stronger and more nuanced than most romcoms I have seen.

The corollary to this sadly unrecognised genre would be the “disconnection” or “failed connections” found in films like Blue Valentine, Le Mepris and even Casablanca as couples’ lives together fragment or as people simply slide past one another without ever quite achieving their collision, planets forever in parallel orbits.

It makes me wonder what other potential genres might exist beyond the standard ones into which we try (and fail) to separate our media entertainment.

Automobiles Two

Cars has long been considered “the runt of the Pixar litter”, the weakest of their generally stratospherically soaring output. There was little doubt that kids loved it, but adults treated it with contempt, myself included. My view softened only when watching it with Clark and seeing how effectively it tapped into his own imagination, a shift that also seems to be shared by many young parents. When a sequel was announced my initial reaction was simply, “who decided that what we really need is Cars 2?” The answer was actually pretty obvious: the accountants. Whatever people may have thought of the film, Cars provided Pixar with its most easily exploitable and most profitable merchandising opportunities to date, pulling in an estimated $5 billion. In those terms it certainly makes a sequel a financially appealing prospect, and such voices clearly won through.

My view of Toy Story 3 was not nearly as positive as most for what I felt it symbolised in terms of stagnating creativity within Pixar (it was a great film, but most of you will know I consider it roundly bested by How To Train Your Dragon that year). Nevertheless I was content not to begrudge them that sequel in returning to their landmark roots one more time to round things out. The Cars franchise lacks that storied history or shared nostalgia and I think this is why its sequel resonated so poorly with critics who likely take a similar view in terms of stagnation but responded with an overzealous attack on the film to voice their displeasure. It is not an isolated occurrence. On the one hand this may filter through to Pixar; on the other it is almost certainly unfair to what appears to be an entirely competent children’s film. No, I doubt I’ll be seeing it in the cinema, but that is less to do with reviews and more my own rather lacklustre reaction to Up (other than the first ten minutes) and the original Cars. More than ever, though, I find myself wishing the studio split I (wrongly) foresaw after Wall-E had come to pass, with a second Pixar team working on adult-orientated animated features. It is not — as many critics would now have you believe — that Pixar are putting out bad films; it is simply that they are not creating the ones in which I am interested and of which their career highlights (that would be Monsters, Inc, Wall-E and The Incredibles) demonstrate they are eminently capable.

Meanwhile the Disney side of the equation is even starker: an in-house Cars spin-off called Planes. Seriously. I actually thought it might be a joke at first (given its recent string of entertaining parody trailers for the Muppet Movie). Of course we almost expect this from Disney as the behemoth it is, while that corporate outlook seemed not to have seeped through to Pixar culture in the past. I suspect Planes will be used by many as further evidence of Pixar’s downfall. Yet the weirdest thing about the Planes trailer is actually the soundtrack: White Zombie in a Disney flick!?

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Given my darker sensibilities and vocal disapproval of their sanitisation of older fairytales, people are often surprised to hear me talk fervently about what I deem Disney’s golden era: 1989-1994, a period of resurgence that encompassed the releases of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. I was excited to discover the recently announced Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary covering specifically the development of these four films and the team that turned around the company’s ailing animation fortunes. It will also be interesting to see how they handle Tim Burton’s presence since by all accounts he felt largely stifled as an animator at Disney, but began developing a little project called The Nightmare Before Christmas. Meanwhile Multiplex’s suggested sequel would not be inaccurate.

3D cinema has obviously taken the big screen by storm and last month’s CES 2010 suggests TV and camera manufacturers are hoping to push the same tech into consumers hands too. But I discovered that last year YouTube started experimenting with supporting indie 3D video. They noticed that several users were uploading 3D video but the problem was that unless the user has the corresponding coloured glasses, they were out of luck. Instead stereoscopic videos with the “YT3D” tag will allow users to select the glasses they have (including polarised if they have one of the few screens supporting it) and YouTube will present the video accordingly. Testing it out with some travel footage and the digital animation PANGEA trailer in HD on the living room TV was rather astounding. The downside is, of course, that most glasses will still destroy colour in these videos. At least until polarised screens become prevalent, this tech isn’t going to become more than a gimmick in the home environment.

And finally, crucial tips on how to tie your shoelaces: balanced knots and the speedy Ian knot. Seriously.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

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