I’m not sure whether any of my readers have been anxiously waiting for me to start reviewing trailers for upcoming video games, but the lack of gaming content on my channel has bothered me for a while – even though it really shouldn’t, since I’m not a professional gamer by any stretch of the imagination. But the thing is: video games are increasingly growing more and more cinematic as time goes by, and the industry of adapting them to the big screen has become very profitable over in Hollywood. In fact, one could even say they’re becoming very prestige, with the recent news that Cate Blanchett will star in Lionsgate’s Borderlands adaptation.
It’s highly unlikely that a game like The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum will ever get that same treatment, but the reason I’ve selected this as my first video game trailer to review is simple: firstly, I’m familiar with this franchise, and I can think of things to say about it. Secondly, I’ve been considering reviewing certain video game trailers for a while, and this one just happened to land at an advantageous moment. So here we go!
The teaser trailer for Daedelic Entertainment’s Gollum is extremely brief, and features no glimpse of actual gameplay. In theory, the game is supposed to be stealth-based, with the player doing their best to control the frail, diminutive protagonist (I use that term loosely) as he switches back and forth between his two wildly different personas: the cunning, manipulative Gollum, and the kinder, gentler Sméagol. The player technically controls which persona they can play as, although game designer Martin Wilkes described it in an interview with IGN as being akin to “maneuvering a truck with two flat tires and trying not to drive it off a cliff”, which sounds…challenging, to say the least. As for exciting, well, that’s a different question entirely. Since Gollum isn’t particularly strong and rarely uses any weapons more advanced than a rock, the game is not going to feature a heavy focus on combat, but will instead force the player to use their survival-instincts to endure the horrors of Mordor and other inhospitable regions of Middle-earth.
In the teaser trailer, we see only two areas: Gollum’s cave in the Misty Mountains, littered with bones and what looks to be a recently deceased viperfish, and the rocky wastelands of Mordor, where Gollum finds himself after being taken captive by Orcs. The game will follow the events of the books and their detailed appendices more closely than Peter Jackson’s movies, although certain stylistic decisions have been made which appear to have no basis in either – most strikingly, the design of Sauron’s tower, Barad-dûr, which appears in the trailer as a thin, metallic spire with strong sci-fi influences. Since this game is set between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, Gollum’s journey in the game likely has to end with him being captured by Aragorn and imprisoned by the Wood Elves of Mirkwood, but hopefully there’s room to explore, and/or mess about with the actual chronology of events just a little bit.
It was revealed that several characters from the books will have small but crucial appearances in the game, and off the top of my head I can think of a few who might show up: the Nine Ringwraiths, with whom Gollum appears to have had unpleasant interactions; the Orc commander Grishnákh, who instantly recognizes Pippin’s impression of Gollum’s voice in The Two Towers and knows or guesses about the One Ring; Shelob, the great hulking spider-demon dwelling in the mountains above Mordor who aligns herself with the miserable creature in exchange for new victims delivered to her doorstep; Aragorn, who captures Gollum and delivers him into Elven custody; and Legolas, who may very well have been one of the hunters tasked with trying to find Gollum, and was one of his eventual captors at any rate. Whether these characters will have wholly original designs (if they appear at all, though Shelob at least seems a given) remains to be seen.
As for Gollum himself, our main character bears a passing resemblance to the CGI version of the slinking rogue seen in both The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings trilogies, although he has more hair in the video game (an attempt to make him more relatable, apparently). Andy Serkis is not believed to be reprising his role voicing the character, which is a big loss for the game studio if true: Serkis’ iconic performance as Gollum is commonly cited as one of the films’ strongest, and he still routinely slips back into character.
Will you be playing Gollum when the game arrives on PS5, Xbox Series X and PC next year? Is Serkis’ voice a deal-breaker for you? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
We’re all hungry for more news and information about Amazon Prime’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, and so, unsurprisingly, many of us have taken up the habit of theorizing to try and piece together our own news and information. But while many theories have no basis in factual evidence, there’s one that’s been making the rounds recently that actually sounds pretty plausible. I speak of the rumor that actress Kaya Scodelario has possibly joined the cast of The Lord Of The Rings and is moving to New Zealand to begin filming.
The theory came to my attention when it was posted by TheOneRing.net on their Twitter account, but their post did not credit the original theorizer, kayascodsnews, a Kaya Scodelario fan account on Instagram that actually did some very nifty sleuth work and managed to construct a fairly elaborate and convincing theory about Scodelario’s new whereabouts.
As they noted in their theory, Scodelario has been talking on her Instagram about moving away from her home country (the United Kingdom) to an unidentified new location: but she seems to only plan on moving for a year, suggesting that this is for her career, not for any personal reasons. Just a few days ago she embarked on a flight, which she mentioned in her Instagram story would last up to 27 hours – pretty much the exact time it takes to fly between the U.K. and New Zealand. As a going-away present, Scodelario’s friends gifted her a poster for The Hobbit with their faces edited over the thirteen Dwarves and other characters: a funny gesture, or something with a little more significance? If Scodelario has already told that many of her friends that she’s working on The Lord Of The Rings, then she’s not doing a very good job of keeping Amazon Prime’s secrets: but it wouldn’t be at all uncommon for this to happen. Besides, Amazon Prime has been a bit too secretive for my taste recently: since the main cast reveal, we’ve gotten hardly anything from any of their official channels.
That’s the extent of the theory, and since then we’ve had no updates: Scodelario hasn’t yet confirmed where in the world she is now. But with all this in mind, let’s imagine for a minute that Scodelario is, in fact, onboard The Lord Of The Rings series in what I have to assume will be a major role. Who would she be playing? TheOneRing.net pointed out that she bears a striking resemblance to Liv Tyler, who portrayed Arwen Evenstar in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and deduced that Scodelario could be playing Arwen’s mother, Celebrían (she can’t be playing Arwen herself, because Arwen isn’t born during the time period when the Amazon Prime series takes place; during the Second Age, over three-thousand years prior to the Quest of the Ring). In the histories of Middle-earth, Celebrían is a bit of a background player until the Third Age, when she gets abducted and brutally tortured by Orcs, leading to her eventually leaving Middle-earth entirely and setting sail for the West. In the Second Age, all we really know about her is that she’s the daughter of the Elven lady Galadriel, and accompanied her during several of her travels. At some point, she met and fell in love with Elrond Half-elven. For an actress like Scodelario (who has had major roles in several franchises, including the most Pirates Of The Caribbean movie) to be attracted to this role, the character’s story would almost certainly have to be expanded through original material – which isn’t a problem, if you ask me, but anything that diverges even slightly from the books is bound to court with controversy. Whoever she’s playing, Scodelario’s recent success as an action star in the horror-thriller Crawl suggests to me that her character would have some sort of action element (and on a side-note, Scodelario’s sister in Crawl was played by Morfydd Clark, who will play Galadriel in The Lord Of The Rings according to all sources: would it be so much of a stretch for Scodelario to now play her daughter?).
But now we’re moving away from the facts. Simply put, we don’t know whether Kaya Scodelario is in The Lord Of The Rings: it’s possible she’s filming something else entirely (the Resident Evil reboot, for instance), or not filming anything at all. It’s possible she’s not even heading to New Zealand. But while this is merely a rumor for right now, it’s a rumor with a grain of truth – which means we shouldn’t discount it just yet, but should instead keep a close eye on Scodelario’s next move.
What say you? Does it seem likely to you that Scodelario has joined the cast, or are you wary to jump to conclusions? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
Dust off your old suit of armor (I hope you still have yours, and it hasn’t been worn down by your muscles, like Henry Cavill’s), sharpen your ancient broadsword, and toss a coin to your Witcher, because it’s time to return to The Continent. Netflix has just announced today that, while they’ve been waiting for filming to resume on season two of The Witcher series, early work has begun on a prequel spinoff series, titled Blood Origin, which will explore the life and times of the very first Witcher, over a thousand years before Geralt of Rivia. You may think it’s a bit early for spinoffs (and particularly prequels) when the franchise is still so young, but technically this won’t be the first – an animated film was also announced several months ago, which will follow the Witcher Vesemir and be titled Nightmare Of The Wolf (who else is loving these ridiculously over-the-top names?).
Blood Origin will be six episodes long, a short amount of time to pack in so much worldbuilding and deep lore from the Witcher books. Thankfully, writers Lauren Hissrich and Declan de Barra will be joined by the author of the original Witcher books, Andrzej Sapkowski, who will serve as a creative consultant on the series. Together, they will tackle the story of how the Witchers came into being, and how humans and monsters first clashed during the aftermath of the Conjunction of the Spheres.
Let’s go over the basics real quick, because even I didn’t know much about this period of Witcher history before researching for this post. In Sapkowski’s universe, there are several dimensions, or Spheres – each inhabited by different types of people: the Continent, the world in which The Witcher takes place, was originally only home to Elves, Dwarves, and Gnomes. During the event known as the Conjunction of the Spheres, dimensions collided violently, scattering people across the universe and in worlds where they were afterwards trapped when the gateways between dimensions closed. The first humans, and a number of gruesome monsters, were left behind on the Continent – and with them came the magical force known as “chaos”, which Witcher fans will recognize as the power that fuels mages like Yennefer.
Blood Origin is supposed to take place a few hundred years after this event: monsters have overrun the Continent and are busy ripping people to shreds on a daily basis; the Elves are caught up in the middle of all the bloodshed; and the Mages, those few gifted individuals able to channel the power of chaos, are working on a solution to the problem – a solution which will manifest itself in the very first Witchers: a unique breed of superhuman killing machines designed to hunt monsters into extinction and liberate humankind. We don’t actually know the identity of the first person to survive the grueling process one has to undergo in order to become a Witcher, so the show will be working with a blank slate. In fact, we know startlingly little about this entire chapter in the chronology: the names of the two Mages who designed the Witchers, Cosimo Malaspina and Alzur, are some of the only details available from the books and video games.
But in the long run, that might be for the best. With so much uncharted territory to explore, there will be plenty of room to build new storylines and invent new characters – some of this material could then be brought over into the main series (yes, they’re separated by a thousand years, but it’s fantasy: immortality and indestructibility are always valid excuses), tying the two together, perhaps even allowing us to draw parallels between the first Witcher and one of the last. Either that, or it will just be a really interesting and expensive bit of backstory for the world, and I love some backstory. I also really enjoyed The Witcher, so I’m excited that there’s even more content on its way. We don’t have a release date for Blood Origin yet, but it’s probably going to hit Netflix sometime around late 2022 or early 2023.
So what do you think? Are you excited for Blood Origin? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords may be no basis for a system of government, but it is a pretty decent hook for a Netflix series. Cursed, the streaming service’s epic new Lady Of The Lake retelling, definitely mangles the Arthurian source material (and takes an extremely long time to get to the whole Lady Of The Lake bit), and even as a standalone it suffers from a number of problems, but it still tells a crafty little story about wizards, witches and Vikings (you heard me correctly), all wrapped up in the standard Netflix package.
That standard package can sometimes be very standard (characters falling hopelessly in love with each other after approximately fifteen seconds! How original!), but the show does go through several highs and lows in terms of quality – with some of its highs being extraordinary (the entire climax to episode four) and some of its lows being abysmal (pretty much every attempt at heterosexual romance). The series takes a little while to get going: the first two episodes, unfortunately, are the weakest, as we follow our reluctant protagonist Nimue (Katherine Langford) on the first steps of her journey, but episode three is good and episode four is great. After that, the quality takes another dip, but the series regains its footing in time for the finale.
Our heroine Nimue begins her epic quest as a Fae villager living comfortably far away from the merciless brutality of the Catholic Church’s servants, the Red Paladins, whose mission it is to wipe out magic across England (it’s best to just accept that they live in England, despite the wonky geography and the constant references to a nearby “desert kingdom”). Nimue is soon entrusted with a powerful sword which grants her increased power, strength, and, as time goes on, an unceasing blood-lust. Langford’s performance as the cursed young woman is a strong one, though she clearly falters in romantic scenes when partnered with her love interest, the handsome young Arthur (Devon Terrell). That’s entirely fair – the romance is boring and conventional, and the dialogue meant to build chemistry and passion is unoriginal. Langford’s greatest strength is when she’s in the thick of battle, wielding Excalibur (sorry, the Sword Of Power) alongside her Fae magic.
But the thing that makes Nimue’s arc most interesting is that she’s not technically supposed to be wielding the sword. In fact, the words “Take this to Merlin” echo through her head over and over again. The Merlin in question is none other than Merlinthe Magician (Gustaf Skårsgard), the legendary sorcerer of Arthurian legend who is deeply entangled in all the myths surrounding the English king’s rise to power. Here, he is even more intimately entwined in Nimue’s story. Skårsgard does a good enough job conveying the ancient wizard’s inner turmoil and pain, but he brings significantly less fun to the role – and the character of Merlin, who in this version stumbles around drunk half the time and uses his wits to escape any number of situations, needs that quirky dash of humor. The lack of it is surprising, and makes Merlin far less engaging than he might have been.
The supporting cast surrounding these three main characters is vast and filled with highlights – Morgana (Shalom Brune-Franklin), a sorceress in the making, treads a fine line between good and evil while various demonic entities try to make her their pawn; Pim (Lily Newmark), is a cheery, wide-eyed Fae who makes the impulsive decision to join a pack of Vikings; Sister Iris (Emily Coates), a frighteningly intense young nun, is set up to be this show’s answer to Game Of Thrones‘ Arya Stark – only Iris is more like a mix between Little Red Riding Hood and The Terminator. And Peter Mullan fully transforms into the series’ villain, Father Carden, the friendly, smiling leader of the Red Paladins’ genocidal crusade. Carden’s Paladins make perfectly decent villains: but while they have no problems burning or crucifying innocents and pillaging the defenseless, they aren’t a well organized military force and thus their battles are often on the weak side. But that’s where the Vikings come in.
The Vikings are everywhere in this series. All the time we spend on the longships of TheRed Spear (Bella Dayne) with Pim might seem pointless at first (though I stopped feeling that way once we were treated to a hilarious montage of Pim, who was enlisted as the crew’s healer, trying desperately to keep up with the raiders’ never ending brutal injuries), but it is integral to the events of the finale, which sees multiple Viking clans clash in epic warfare: and, based on the secret identity of one specific Viking character, it will prove to be integral to the events of future seasons of Cursed, if there are any. All that being said, it’s hard to stop from laughing when King Cumber (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) arrives about halfway through the season with a ridiculously mangy platinum blond wig that appears to have been loosely glued to the top of his head. If you thought Henry Cavill’s wig in The Witcher was bad, then you’re going to be horrified by Cursed, which has plenty such awkward hairpieces.
Besides occasionally looking awful, the hair, costumes and makeup utilized on this show don’t even try for any semblance of historical accuracy. For instance, the court of the distasteful Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto) is a complete mix-and-match of styles, ranging from late Medieval to Victorian, with some background characters appearing to have stepped out of the 16th or 17th Centuries. I was tempted to say that Cursed is reminiscent of an Assassin’s Creed interpretation of history, but I actually think the video game series does a far better job of achieving authenticity – though the Trinity Guard, an elite sect of gold-masked Catholic warriors wielding maces and whips under the command of a solemn, vaguely reptilian abbot, feels like it would be very much at home in the game. As does The Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman), a nimble assassin and another of the series’ roster of antagonists – but his journey takes some very interesting twists and could be relevant to the LGBTQ+ community in ways which I don’t wish to spoil here.
Cursed is well worth the long ride (and it’s a long ride indeed) for its strong lead performance, the beautiful aesthetic – insert shoutout to those absolutely lovely animated scene transitions here – the surprisingly good cinematography, and the political intrigue: one of my favorite fantasy tropes, very well executed here, with a particular emphasis on how powerful women often had to work their influence from behind the throne. Two wildly different women – the quiet, calculating Lady Lunete (Polly Walker) and the sadistic berserker Eydis (Sofia Oxenham) – both have to operate in this fashion.
The diversity is another good reason to settle in for the ten-episode ride: though some audiences will inevitably become enraged by the mere presence of people of color – and women of color, especially – in 4th or 5th Century England, I think that’s a stupid complaint because people of color have been living in England since Roman times, well before Arthur’s reign. If anything, that’s one of the few things that Cursed actually gets right when it comes to historical accuracy. Maybe instead of getting offended by black people and LGBTQ+ characters, you should direct your attention toward the swarms of Vikings coming down from Norway about two hundred years early? Just a thought.
If you’re at all interested in fantasy, you’re at least going to have a fun time with Cursed. It’s shamelessly entertaining when it wants to be (i.e. when it doesn’t get bogged down in love triangle tropes), and there’s nothing wrong with just watching something because it’s fun, and has some thrills and scares and big cliffhangers. If you’re hoping it’s the next Witcher, I’d encourage you to lower your expectations just a little bit – just a little bit, mind you. It’s not so far behind its more high-profile Netflix competitor in terms of quality that it could never catch up in future seasons (and I’m going to hazard a guess based on the finale that future seasons are planned because otherwise I’m suing Netflix), but it still needs to find its own voice amongst the crowd.
Because of the recent news that the Tron franchise is apparently still a priority at Disney and plans for franchise-expanding sequels or reboots are still underway, I thought it might be interesting to take a circuitous stroll back down memory lane and revisit one of the strangest movies from what is often considered Disney’s Dark Age, in the early 1980’s. This era of the studio’s long and storied history isn’t known for producing a whole bunch of timeless classics (if there are any hardcore fans of The Black Cauldron out there, I’d love to know about them), nor box-office hits – but how do you even begin to describe Tron? The needlessly convoluted sci-fi adventure flick about glow-in-the-dark humanoid computer programs fighting to overthrow their tyrannical leadership doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any box, and so of course it has acquired a kind of well-earned cult classic status over the years – even leading to the creation of a poorly-received sequel in 2010 which, while not a box-office flop, failed to recapture much of what made the original film so…bizarrely endearing.
There are so many things wrong with Tron from a storytelling standpoint, and yet, despite quickly falling into the classic sci-fi/fantasy trap of trying to seduce the audience with incredibly complex world building instead of, you know, a particularly good story, or well developed characters (though, considering how badly the sequel’s attempts at character development went over, perhaps we weren’t missing anything anyway?), somehow it still works – or at the very least, it works about as well as a movie about warring sentient computer programs possibly could in 1982, at the very dawn of the age of special effects. Knowing some of the story about the cutting edge technology used to create the sprawling electronic landscape of The Grid (which, to the modern viewer’s eye, probably just resembles partly-completed digital artwork of Flatland) definitely helps to make the movie interesting from a cinephile’s point of view: its influence on CGI is far less well known than the influence of, say, The Little Mermaid on animation, but the two films are arguably comparable in terms of the lasting impact they made on the industry. The difference is that The Little Mermaid was a juggernaut that almost immediately birthed an unstoppable Disney renaissance – Tron was a financial disaster for the company that was snubbed at the Oscars for the Special Effects award it clearly deserved, apparently because Academy voters thought using computers was cheating.
That doesn’t make the work that went into designing Tron any less commendable, however. The film was born out of an idea to create a neon gladiator mascot for the fledgling Lisberger Studios, which felt that the character needed a starring vehicle to sell him to audiences and establish the studio’s brand – ironically, the cost of making the film became so high that Lisberger Studios had to turn to Disney for help with financing and marketing. In a classic case of studios being afraid to invest too heavily in something radically new, Disney allowed them to make the movie but decided not to give it the marketing push it also needed until too late in the game. Behind the scenes, the process of designing the world of Tron using rotoscoping and the even more grueling technique of backlit animation (which gives the movie its one-of-a-kind glow in the dark look) had to be fast-tracked to meet its release date, with director Steven Lisberger eventually having to hire a whole separate team of animators from Taiwan to ease the stress on his own employees. Miraculously, they managed to get the job done within nine months, a true credit to the power of teamwork.
But on its own, separated from its later impact and the behind-the-scenes work that went into it, just looking at the finished film as a whole: does it hold up? That’s a bit of a harder question to answer. As I said, Tron has a lot of story issues – the audience gets handed a whole bunch of information about the cyber world right up front, and is then expected to retain all that information for the next thirty minutes, while we watch the Real World storyline play out (which itself is pretty complicated). Then the Real World completely ceases to exist as far as the movie is concerned, and we’re plunged into The Grid, where computers wage brutal warfare against each other: highly ritualistic warfare involving motor-bike/smart car hybrids, but warfare nonetheless. There are solar sailers to be flown, beacons to be lit, and electric blue water to drink (I bring that up because there’s one scene of the main characters drinking said water that seems to go on for way longer than it probably needs to). It’s all very confusing.
Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner lead the cast of mostly identical white men trapped in glowing outfits with ridiculously oversized helmets, most of whom wield Frisbees to complete the look (a look which somehow warranted an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design). Bridges’ character, brilliant programmer and arcade video game champion Kevin Flynn, is supposedly the star of the movie, though there’s no good reason for why that is when Boxleitner’s character (dissatisfied ENCOM employee Allan Ward in the real world, legendary hero Tron on The Grid) has his name in the title, has just as much if not more plot agency than Bridges’, and actually is the clear male lead for the first thirty minutes of the movie. It’s like if Star Wars: A New Hope started out being about Luke Skywalker and then changed to become Han Solo’s story partway through (interestingly, there’s actually several similarities between Kevin Flynn and Han Solo, particularly in the sequel). David Warner gives the best performance in the film as the sinister E. Dillinger, President of the ENCOM company (in his Grid form as Sark, he comes off as a sad Darth Vader ripoff). As a side note: whenever Warner’s Dillinger was onscreen, I was constantly distracted by the nagging thought that, if Disney ever reboots this franchise, they absolutely need Ben Mendelsohn for this villainous role. Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan), the female lead, shows a lot of potential as a spunky scientist, but of course this is the 80’s, so it’s not long before she trades in her intelligent and pro-active role for the part of demure, soft-spoken damsel Yori. In keeping with the Hollywood tradition of rebooting classic franchises with the original male leads but conveniently forgetting to bring back the female leads, both versions of Morgan’s character were dropped for the sequel, despite her repeated efforts to try and contact Disney.
On the flip-side, two women played an integral role in giving Tron the eerie techno vibe we know and love: composer Wendy Carlos, an openly trans woman best known for her work on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, collaborated with Annemarie Franklin on the score – parts of which, unfortunately, were removed by Disney and replaced with songs by Journey: the rock band’s contributions to the film were honored in the sequel via a slightly random use of the song “Separate Ways”. But Carlos’ iconic score is still a lasting testament, like all her work, to the often underappreciated achievements of trans people in the film industry.
I, for one, am glad that Tron will be getting another chance at proving its value to modern audiences: moviegoers (or, quite possibly, Disney+ subscribers) deserve a chance to see more stories from The Grid, told with the best new technology available to the studio, and longtime fans of the franchise deserve a continuation of a series that has been pretty much dead for a long time. We all deserve a little more Tron in our lives.
The Tolkien fandom can collectively sigh a breath of relief: several months after production ground to a halt on Amazon Prime’s The Lord Of The Rings due to the advent of coronavirus, the high-profile series is finally getting back on track, with preliminary work already underway and actual filming expected to start up again soon.
The Lord Of The Rings began shooting back in February, and we now have confirmation that, before the government-mandated lockdown in March, almost two full episodes of the series’ first season were completed. This means that Amazon Prime’s original gameplan – to film two episodes and then go into hiatus until September – won’t actually have to change that much. This lines up with Lord Of The Rings actress Morfydd Clark’s recent statement that she won’t be able to return to her home country of England “for a while”, which The Daily Mail took to mean sometime in the autumn (though it’s worth noting they also missed the memo that this isn’t actually an adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings proper, since they referenced Gollum, Gandalf and Frodo as well, none of whom should be in the series). This is very good news, not just for Amazon themselves, but also for those of us in the Tolkien fandom who are constantly having to combat negativity towards the series: there are already a number of cynical and pessimistic detractors of the show out on the internet, and they tend to cling to any bit of bad news they can find.
But why the sudden change, after so many months? New Zealand’s government has officially granted border exemptions to a number of personnel from various different TV and film productions that were set to film in the country, including Lord Of The Rings, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, and – completely coincidentally – a film starring original Lord Of The Rings trilogy star Viggo Mortensen, entitled Greatest Beer Run Ever. Over the next six months, cast and crew from all these productions will be allowed to return to the country and resume work (after first going through self-quarantine). New Zealand had one of the most comprehensive and effective responses to the coronavirus crisis anywhere in the world, which is what has allowed them to return to relative normalcy earlier than most other countries.
In fact, New Zealand’s quick action when dealing with coronavirus may pay off in many more ways than they could ever have expected – their Economic Development Minister declared the country “a global safe haven” for the film community, and that’s not really an exaggeration: most other nations are still suffering heavily from the pandemic, and have a long way to go before they can safely bring in large film crews from all around the world. In recognition of this, New Zealand is increasing funding for both international and domestic film and TV projects in their country to upwards of $230M. In exchange, New Zealand’s economy is expected to receive a massive boost from big productions like Lord Of The Rings and James Cameron’s Avatar sequels, which could bring in about 3000 new jobs and $400M for the small Pacific nation. It looks like Middle-earth will never not be a hugely profitable investment for New Zealand.
So what do you think? Is New Zealand making a wise decision allowing film crews back into their country, or is this still risky? No matter how much we may want to see The Lord Of The Rings on our screens sometime next year, peoples’ lives matter more than any piece of film or TV, and I cannot reiterate that enough. STAY SAFE, and share your thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below.
We’ve known for quite some time that Apple TV is planning to produce a massive, multi-season adaptation of the Foundation trilogy, one of the greatest works of science-fiction ever written and certainly Isaac Asimov’s magnum opus. But apparently they filmed a whole bunch of this series without me ever catching on, because suddenly there’s a Foundation trailer out for the first season today – and it looks brilliant, though also shockingly different from the books.
For one thing, the trailer definitely makes it seem as if we’ll be following one protagonist throughout the entirety of the first season at least: that protagonist being psychohistorian and biographer Gaal Dornick, who in the Foundation books is a very minor character whose only role in the story is essentially to introduce the reader to the actual protagonist, Hari Seldon. For the adaptation, it appears that Gaal (who has been gender-bent, and will be played by actress Lou Llobell) is going to stick around much longer, and probably have a crucial role in the story. Seldon himself, here played by Jared Harris, also seems to have a larger role than he does in the books.
But now for a little background on Foundation, for those who haven’t read the novels – and, to be clear, even I’ve only read the original trilogy: I know there’s prequels, and it appears the series is drawing some stuff from those, but I don’t know much about them so I won’t be referencing them. The story follows Hari Seldon, and later his team of talented intellectuals known as psychohistorians, as they attempt to save the universe from being plunged into a dark age that could last for up to 30,000 years – Seldon’s belief, based on his very accurate calculations, is that, while it would be impossible to prevent it entirely, he can “shorten the darkness”, to quote the trailer narration, to just one thousand years. The books quickly jump ahead, switching protagonists and time periods rapidly: in the first book, we also follow the journey of one Salvor Hardin (whom we see briefly in the trailer, played by Leah Harvey) who, years after Hari Seldon’s death, is tasked with protecting the First Foundation which was set up on the planet Terminus to subtly preserve Seldon’s original plan and prevent it from coming apart – and there are many threats to the plan over the course of the series, from telepathic mutants to bureaucratic politicians. Despite how large the story is, however, many of the heroes of the first book have only very vague characterizations, so I don’t mind the fact that the show is expanding on them – though it does confuse me why so many new characters have been included to fill out the cast.
Then again, even though I don’t know exactly who “Brother Day” is supposed to be – I’ve checked and double-checked: he’s not in the books, not even in the prequels – I do know that he’s played by Lee Pace, who is criminally underrated and definitely deserves another big role like this: he appears several times in the trailer, appears to be a villain, and, most importantly, isn’t hidden under any alien makeup (have I told you lately that it’s a travesty how Marvel costumed and designed his character Ronan the Accuser? No? Well then, here’s your reminder: it was a travesty). There’s also a “Brother Dawn” and “Brother Dusk” – the latter played by another actor I adore, Terrence Mann from Netflix’s Sense8. All three are described as being members of royalty vying for power in the Galactic Empire – in the books, the Empire is already collapsing when the story opens and its impending fall is what Hari Seldon believes will start the dark age: I’m sure Pace’s character and much of his supporting cast have been invented to give us a clearer idea of that.
The trailer, which is partly comprised of footage shot before coronavirus concerns shut down filming back in March and partly constructed from behind-the-scenes material and interviews with showrunner David Goyer, highlights the massive amounts of money that Apple TV have poured into this show. The production design looks incredible, and clearly borrows inspiration from Amazon Prime’s The Expanse, another major sci-fi series; the special effects are extraordinary and already look complete, despite the fact that Foundation doesn’t come out until next year; the level of detail put into everything is inspiring. All in all, while I’m slightly disappointed that I only definitely recognize one scene and less than a handful of characters from the books, I’m at the very least intrigued by what else the show has to offer. Their original content probably won’t ever match the deeply philosophical tone of Asimov’s writing, but if it can come remotely close, then I’ll be impressed.
However, we do have this new bit of Lord Of The Rings casting – plus two possible character name reveals for actors already attached to the series. And just like old times, I’ll break it all down for you, as well as give you my thoughts on the situation.
It appears that English actor Anson Boon has joined the project – though his role is still unclear. Redanian Intelligence notes that he easily be playing an elf due to his very defined, somewhat “ethereal” features. I agree with that assessment: Boon’s resume is still small and mostly limited to British TV and stage performances (outside of an appearance in Sam Mendes’ war drama 1917, a breakout hit with critics), so I don’t have much to work with when trying to determine who he could be playing, but I’ll take a guess anyway – let’s mark him down as a possibility for Glorfindel. This character, an Elf from the books and left out of all of Peter Jackson’s movies, plays a significant role in the Second Age of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, when this series is supposed to be set – thousands of years before the events of Lord Of The Rings – depending on which version of Tolkien’s canon you prefer to regard as definitive. As Glorfindel is depicted in the books, “his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music”. It’s a fairly vague description, but it’s enough for me to go on – and I just really want to see Glorfindel in this series, so forgive me if I grasp at straws.
Next up, we have Ben Fransham, a New Zealand actor who, like many of the country’s citizens, worked on Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies – Fransham played an elf in the first trilogy, as well as orcs in both. His casting makes him the first actor from Jackson’s films to cross over into Amazon Prime’s adaptation of the Middle-earth saga, but his role will likely be fairly small. Additionally, he is now a stunt performer, which may be another reason why he has joined Amazon’s series. If I had to take a guess, I’d wager he will once again be wearing orc prosthetics when we see him onscreen.
So those are the castings, but Redanian Intelligence didn’t stop there – they also informed us that both Simon Merrells and Megan Richards, both of whom were cast in The Lord Of The Rings earlier this year, have character names added to their official actor CV’s. Redanian Intelligence cites this as reason to believe they may be official character names, and they may well be, but I’m wary to come to that conclusion – possibly because I’m wary of the names themselves. Merrells is listed as “Trevyn”, and Richards as “May”, and neither name seems to fit particularly well in Tolkien’s extensive network of languages. May, in particular, feels much too modern for the ancient setting – and it has a hobbit-y sound to it that makes me very nervous, considering that hobbits are among the characters I have no desire to see in Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings.
What do you think of these casting announcements, and the names revealed? Do they encourage you, or not? For me, personally, I’m a little nervous about those names in particular, but I’m also keeping an open mind. Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
Would it be too much of a hot take to say that everything Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame did, the fifth and final season of She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power did just as well – if not better in several instances? I’ll let you decide.
Now, to be fair, She-Ra has the advantage of being a Netflix series, with up to thirteen-episode seasons, so it’s probably not entirely right to compare it to any movie, even ones that are three hours long. However, considering that She-Ra‘s final season, whether intentionally or coincidentally, lifts a great deal of material straight from the closing chapters of the Infinity Saga, it seems fair enough to compare the two storylines, and how they are executed, and how the Netflix/Dreamworks cartoon sometimes gets it right where the Marvel Studios blockbusters falter.
But first, a little background. I was not a She-Ra fan until Friday morning, when I decided it was high time I watched the entire series as quickly as possible, in order to catch up with the final season which had just dropped on Netflix. I had tried once before, several months ago, but I never even got past the opening credits. I forced myself through on this occasion, however – and before the first episode was over, I was already very thankful for that decision, because….wow. But don’t even get me started on the four previous seasons. This is strictly a Season 5 review.
Though I do think a little bit of Season 4 finale recap is in order – if you haven’t caught up, be warned: SPOILERS for that season up ahead! In the aftermath of Queen Glimmer (Karen Fukuhara) recklessly deciding to use the Heart of Etheria – a magical superweapon which lies embedded deep within the core of the planet – a great many things have changed in the status quo: first of all, Etheria itself has been carried through a portal out of its empty pocket-dimension and back into the larger universe; Adora (Aimee Carrero) has lost her connection with the ancient warrior She-Ra, and the Sword of She-Ra is broken and useless; and Hordak (Keston John), once the greatest enemy of the Princesses of Power, has been revealed to be nothing more than the puppet and defective clone of a far greater evil – Horde Prime (also Keston John), an alien overlord who has now launched a massive invasion of Etheria, and has simultaneously captured Glimmer, Hordak, and Hordak’s former second-in-command, Catra (AJ Michalka).
Season 5 picks up after a small time jump. Horde Prime’s invasion is well underway now, and Adora, the archer Bow (Marcus Scribner), and all the remaining Princesses of Power are leading a futile rebellion against him. But on Horde Prime’s flagship, Glimmer and Catra are forced to establish a delicate trust bond with Prime and with each other as they plot a way to escape from imprisonment. Prime is essentially Thanos, and with less clever writing he might just have been that: his agenda (to destroy worlds across the universe in order to achieve cosmic balance and bring about a lasting peace) is much like the Mad Titan’s plan to end world hunger by wiping out half of every planet’s population; even more specifically, he too is the long-awaited mastermind behind the plans of an earlier antagonist in the franchise, who arrives on a gargantuan starship from the depths of space, whose army of mindless bodyguards start almost all their speeches with the word “Rejoice”, and who also has a tendency to meaningfully snap his fingers. Like Thanos, he has arrived on Etheria with the intention of claiming a superweapon that just so happens to come in the form of a magical link between a set of multi-colored crystals.
But unlike Thanos, Horde Prime has time to elaborate on his plans, and the characters have time to get to know him, to witness firsthand his strengths, and to begin to understand his weaknesses while they wander his ship. His special abilities, cloning and mind-control, aren’t anything we haven’t seen before, but they do also differentiate him from Thanos. And in one of my favorite scenes from early in the series, we get a chilling look at the devastation Horde Prime has wrought when he serves Glimmer and Catra a dinner consisting of various rare delicacies from worlds he destroyed in the past. Being the last person in the universe to know an entire planet’s recipes may not seem too dramatic, but it instantly makes the fight to save Etheria more personal, and conveys the horrors of Horde Prime’s conquests far better than any war-torn planet or battlefield.
And that’s the thing: whenever She-Ra strays dangerously close to imitating the Marvel films, it immediately veers away again with the help of some clever, quirky twist that makes it feel fresh and invigorating. The final season may have all the same scope, scale and – occasionally – story-beats as Endgame, but it puts its own unique spin on that story. There is only one instance I can think of where this isn’t the case, when several of our heroes (I won’t say which) are left stranded in space on their way to Etheria, but the fuel they need for their own ship is actually crystals in the exact shape of Captain Marvel’s eight-pointed star – Captain Marvel being the one who rescued Tony Stark from being stranded in space after his ship ran out of fuel – so they touch down on a desolate planet only to run into a motley crew of space pirates led by a woman calledStarla(Melissa Fumero) and a bald purple cyborg woman with trust issues, in an interaction that plays out almost identically to a similar meeting between Tony Stark and Star Lord’s motley crew of space pirates – which also includes a bald purple cyborg woman with trust issues – in Avengers: Infinity War.
But there’s a not-so-secret weapon at the heart of She-Ra, and that’s the series’ core cast of characters and the relationships between them, which are constantly evolving in new, unpredictable directions. Avengers: Infinity War‘s greatest problem, in my opinion, is how it sacrificed character for plot: it’s a problem that unfortunately carries over into parts of Endgame – but She-Ra doesn’t have that problem: every major character has room to grow, and all their development happens onscreen, so it doesn’t need to be exposited to the audience. The cast is also small enough already that everyone can get a meaningful role: whereas in Endgame, it sometimes felt like certain characters had only survived the Infinity War snap so they could provide comedic relief.
The story’s focus is still on Adora and Catra, as the couple navigates their fragile relationship with some difficulty. But for the first time, it’s not Adora putting in all the effort: Catra, for her part, is finally trying to stop pushing people away from her every time they show her any affection – though, much like Marvel’s Loki, she still plans on exploiting the current chaos for her own advantage, even if it means hurting others. Their relationship goes through some very surprising ups-and-downs this season. Separately, they’ve both changed as well – Adora is busy over-exerting herself as she tries to match the strength and stamina she possessed when she could turn into She-Ra, while Catra is a quieter, less aggressive shadow of her former self.
Catra’s reluctant interactions with the imprisoned Queen Glimmer are also surprisingly fun to watch, as Glimmer too has to make an effort to trust her former enemy, the woman responsible for her own mother’s death. Glimmer has had a rough time these past couple of seasons, losing people she loves and watching as her close circle of friends gives up on her when she needs them most – something which is partly her own fault, as her stubbornness manifests itself in increasingly dangerous decisions. Much like Catra, she is descending into a dark place, and it’s both thrilling and scary to join her on that journey.
Back on Etheria, Bow has also made some changes to his own lifestyle – though not quite enough to make him give up crop-tops, which he still wears proudly even in circumstances where one would think it impossible: such as the crushing void of space. His arc in this season is more understated than others, but it gives him a number of deeply satisfying revelations about his purpose in life, and also briefly reunites him with his two dads, who are still just as charming and witty as ever.
My personal favorite character in the series, the geeky tech-genius Entrapta (Christine Woods), is given plenty of material to work with (quite literally) this season. Lost and lonely without her lab partner Hordak to turn to, she once again has a hard time reminding herself that she can’t just join the bad guys because they have cooler technology.
The other Princesses each get more time to shine, especially now that She-Ra herself isn’t around to steal the spotlight from them in action sequences. Shy, sensitive Scorpia (Lauren Ash), having just recently regained her Princess status after living her entire life severed from the powers of her Runestone, is the most compelling to watch – but then, she’s always been compelling. To no one’s surprise, she gravitates most toward Princess Perfuma (Genesis Rodriguez), who is battling her own insecurities and finds a kindred spirit in Scorpia’s gentle personality. The two more brusque Princesses, Frosta (Merit Leighton) and Mermista (Vella Lovell) have smaller roles this season: though the latter does get some very interesting development later in the season, and, as always, has adorable banter with the boisterous pirate captain, Sea Hawk (Jordan Fisher). A pleasant surprise is the upgrade of guest stars Spinnerella (Noelle Stevenson) and Netossa (Krystal Joy Brown) to recurring characters: they’ve come a long way from the time when Bow couldn’t even remember what their powers were.
Several villains find themselves joining with the Rebellion against Horde Prime’s power – the Horde itself has dissolved, while Hordak is trapped between his loyalty to his maker, and fidelity to his friend Entrapta (is there something more to their peculiar relationship? You’ll just have to watch and find out). Shadow Weaver (Lorraine Toussaint), meanwhile, still maintains that she is loyal to Queen Glimmer, even though her meddling with dark magic, which resumes early in the season as the Rebellion runs out of other options, makes her vulnerable to the temptation of evil.
The dark magic itself is still fairly vague, but it is used in a greater capacity than ever before, and there are several fights which utilize it very well – especially those which also involve Glimmer’s father Micah (Daniel Dae Kim), who has had a little time to regain his strength since his decades-long sojourn on Beast Island. All in all, the action has been upgraded significantly this season: in particular, the fight scene which closes out Episode 5 is appropriately epic, and another fight soon after has one character literally leaping across an asteroid belt and blowing up starships with their bare hands. That’s all thanks to the incredible animation, of course.
A She-Ra review wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to the series’ commitment to diversity – an area in which it wipes the floor with Endgame. While that film mustered up one nameless gay background character, She-Ra ends queerbaiting critiques once and for all with definitive, powerful LGBTQ+ representation.
For me, She-Ra beats out Endgame because of how undeniably right the payoff for every story thread and character arc is in the end. While Endgame leaves room for argument and debate over several characters’ fates, She-Ra ties everything up neatly, in a way that is brave but satisfying – at least for me. There’s no room for the sort of unending, roundabout discourse that plagues other fandoms. This feels like a conclusive, fitting ending for characters I only just met yesterday and for whom I would already sacrifice everything.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ONWARD…AND THE LETTER FOR THE KING…AHEAD
Onward was never really on my radar – when the trailers came out, I thought they were weak, and I never even got to see the film in theaters due to the coronavirus. But now that I have seen it, I can’t stop thinking about this strangely endearing story, which so many other critics have said is merely okay: an enjoyable, but easily forgettable, offering from a studio that has produced instant classics. That may be true for some, but I’m not ashamed to say that Onward is quickly becoming one of my favorite Pixar films.
I’m thankfully not alone in this opinion. But my opinion on the film has grown stronger and stronger with each passing day (and rewatch). And I have a few theories on why this film speaks so much to me, and why I think it has already become one of Pixar’s most underrated offerings: a story that deserves to be exalted, and is instead being bullied for its simplicity, so-so worldbuilding, and subversion of tropes – which has itself become something of a trope, though I maintain that Onward does it in the best way possible, and that’s because it borrows the inspiration (just the inspiration, mind you, everything else about it is different) for its most crucial subversive element from The Lord Of The Rings.
Now, Onward borrows a lot of stuff from J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, it’s true. There are little details hidden all over the richly-detailed fantasy world, and, unsurprisingly, many of them harp back to the man who is described as the father of modern fantasy. Fast-food restaurants serving second breakfast, soft drinks named Mountain Doom (with “explosive caffeine!”), an image of what I believe to be Gandalf versus The Balrog in the back of Barley’s van…basically, all the usual stuff that would make me slightly biased in this film’s favor. But no, I don’t love it solely because of that. Nor do I love it solely because everyone in the film is an LGBTQ+ icon (though, if you’re interested, feel free to check out my non-existent TED talk about how Laurel and The Manticore are absolutely canon, the pawn shop owner radiates big boss lesbian energy, and Barley is a chaotic gay cinnamon roll). Sure, those things contribute to the film’s overall appeal – but what I love most about it is how it finally clarifies that Samwise Gamgee was the true hero of The Lord Of The Rings.
If you don’t already know, let me explain: in the Tolkien fandom, there has always been a war between “stans” of Frodo, and “stans” of Samwise Gamgee – a “stan” being a person who devotes themselves, wholly and unconditionally, to one specific person, fictional character, or thing. I’m not a big fan of stanning anyone or anything, simply because stans often become so passionate about whatever they’re stanning that they refuse to see its faults, and instead become toxic and hyper-aggressive when they see a threat to their idol. In the case of The Lord Of The Rings, it’s either really sad or really unsurprising that a story about unconditional love and loyalty would attract so many stans – who often divide themselves into either Frodo stans or Samwise stans. However, all you toxic Samwise stans are off the hook today, because I’m not coming for you – I’m coming for the toxic Frodo stans, and their idea of what makes a true hero.
J.R.R. Tolkien described Samwise Gamgee as the true hero of his story. Needless to say, Frodo stans have never liked this tidbit of trivia, and typically disregard it, either choosing to scream “DEATH OF THE AUTHOR!,” as loudly as possible, or snobbily remarking that “well, Tolkien didn’t write it that way”. Well, actually, he did – though, admittedly, everyone has differing opinions, and I respect that. But Onward uses the same formula for its hero and protagonist and makes it even less disputable.
In my opinion, what Frodo stans often overlook is that a story’s hero isn’t always its protagonist, nor vice versa. It’s rare to find, indeed, though I can actually name at least one other story this year that has done it…in a way. I say “in a way” because, while Netflix’s The Letter For The King turns the tables on its main character and reveals that one of his supporting cast, a young woman, is actually the hero of prophecy, and destined to defeat the villain, she never actually becomes the hero of the story. She’s a central plot-point, but that’s all she is: she’s just there to fight the big bad. In trying to create a surprise hero reveal, Netflix accidentally made their surprise hero the surprise protagonist of the series, while the character who was both hero and protagonist up until that point became solely the hero.
Because here’s the thing, which I’ve found is true across several different mediums: a hero doesn’t have to be the character whose name is in the title, or who gets to fight all the big sword-battles, or wield all the cool magic powers. From my experience, a story’s hero is often the overlooked beating heart of the story, the character around whom the entire story revolves without us ever noticing, usually until the very end. Sam, for instance, is the hero of The Lord Of The Rings – he represents everything the good guys are fighting for, and, without him, the story falls apart: not only because without him Frodo would have died several times before ever reaching Mordor, but because without him, The Lord Of The Rings isn’t the story of unconditional love, unbreakable friendship and unquenchable hope that we know it to be. Without him, in fact, it’s a pretty dark tale. So Sam is the true hero of that story because he is its core, the rock upon which the story is built, and Frodo is the protagonist: the character at the center of the plot – and he’s important too, because he teaches us about the importance of mercy and forgiveness, and how power corrupts. But when Frodo lies, maimed and spiritually exhausted on the slopes of Mount Doom, who is there beside him at the end of all things? Sam, that’s who. And it’s Sam’s presence there that reminds us what the story is all about: hope enduring even in darkness, and love defeating evil. For me, this is what defines a hero versus a protagonist, and shows how both can exist in one story without necessarily being the same person – a story’s true hero is the character who best personifies the themes and moral of the story, if there is one, while the protagonist is the most important character in the plot.
And that brings us back to Onward, and the case of Barley and Ian. For most of the film’s duration, it seems clear who is both hero and protagonist: Ian Lightfoot. He’s our POV character the entire time; he’s the one who initiates the quest when he finds out he’s the only character who can use magic; he’s the character who fights all the big fights, overcomes all the hardest obstacles, and has the big third-act battle against the fire-breathing dragon. But that doesn’t make him the hero – as it turns out, Ian is the protagonist, while his overlooked and underestimated older brother Barley Lightfoot is the story’s true hero.
It might sound unthinkable. But Onward isn’t just the story of two boys trying to meet their father – it’s a celebration of parents and parental figures in general. That’s why the father is the elusive end-goal of the movie’s plot. That’s why Laurel, the boys’ mother, follows them on their quest and has a key role in the final battle. That’s why there’s a subplot with the boys’ stepfather, whom they initially dislike but learn to accept. That’s why the big revelation at the end of the movie is that Barley Lightfoot has always been Ian’s own father figure growing up, and that Ian always did know his father, through Barley. And that’s why, in a moving act of gratitude, Ian returns the favor by giving Barley, and Barley alone, the chance to reunite with the ghost of their father in the film’s epic conclusion. That’s not entirely by choice – there’s a large dragon headed their way, and one of them has to stop it before it kills them all – but that makes it more powerful: because by that point, Ian’s character arc has concluded. He’s already figured out what and who the story is all about. But Barley still hasn’t: in a noble act of self-sacrifice, he offers to go hold off the dragon and give Ian the chance to meet their dad. But Ian stops him, telling him that now, Barley deserves what Ian always had: a chance to share his life, even for a moment, with his own father figure. Suddenly, Barley Lightfoot is the true heart, soul and hero of the story, and he best represents what the film is all about.
Now, a celebration of unconventional parental figures and older siblings isn’t anything new – the Frozen series and Lilo & Stitch are two other animated movies that give older siblings all the respect they deserve, and in fact Barley Lightfoot shares a couple characteristics with Elsa in particular (make them both gay, you cowards!) – but Pixar’s spin on the material gives it a truly unique twist. And in so doing, whether intentionally or not, they have paid homage to the father of modern fantasy.
And there you have it. At this point I’ve likely angered a fair number of Frodo stans (but don’t worry, I still love allmostsome a few of you), and I’ve rambled on for far too long. Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
Oh, and one last thing. My initial rating for Onward was too low, so allow me to do something I almost never do, and revise it:
This review comes at a strange time, just a little over a month since Pixar’s Onward hit theaters – long after I should already have been able to see this film in a pre-coronavirus world, and long before I should have been able to catch it on streaming. But here we are, entering a new and uncertain chapter of the film industry’s history: one in which films now leave theaters and hop into the ancillary markets much earlier than expected.
Unfortunately, Onward suffered the consequences of arriving on the very weekend that much of the world suddenly realized just how dangerous the coronavirus crisis was quickly becoming – it pulled only small crowds to the box-office, and even those became impossible to muster when theaters collectively chose to close down. As a result, I feel safe in assuming that not many people have seen Onward yet, and for those of you who haven’t, here’s my review. I will not call it “late”, for a movie review is never late – it arrives precisely when it means to.
Onward is not, strictly speaking, Pixar’s first adventure in the fantasy genre – but it is the first one with Elves, and that’s got to count for something. Set in a magic-infused world of wonder that has slowly declined with the inevitable advent of technology and industrialism, the film follows two Elves on their mighty quest to spend a single day with the ghost of their dead father, who can be brought back to life with a little help from a magical gemstone, a wizard’s staff, and an absent-minded Manticore.
Appropriately, the film revels in meta-humor, with plenty of loving shout-outs to mythical characters, creatures and locales; Easter eggs galore for the keen-eyed; and all the standard fantasy tropes we know and love. Because of the unusual circumstances allowing us to watch Onward from the comfort of our own homes, it’s tempting to watch the film with a finger poised over the pause button, trying to examine every corner of the screen for these whimsical details (though some are obvious: such as a fast-food restaurant whose giant neon signboard reads “Burger Shire: Now Serving Second Breakfast!”). I encourage you to try and refrain from doing so, at least on your first watch, so you don’t miss out on the story itself. As Martin Scorsese would advise – just try to pretend you’re in a theater.
Onward‘s multitude of callbacks to classic fantasy literature and myths get the film in trouble in more ways than one, unfortunately. Whereas other Pixar films usually involve some unique, hilarious twist, and immerse the viewer in a fully fleshed-out world rich with individuality, Onward‘s twist has been explored in dozens of books and movies before, most successfully in Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld novels, and its world is mostly built from borrowed material. This makes it hard to sell people on the worldbuilding premise, because the film doesn’t scream creativity like Pixar’s previous hits: Coco, Inside Out, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., etc.
So what do you sell them on? Well, Pixar seems to think that audiences just want a good long cry, and markets its films accordingly – but Onward is really more heartwarming than sad. Don’t get me wrong: it has plenty of sad scenes, but the story, and its resolution, are more poignant and subtly bittersweet than outright soul-crushing. This is sadness done right; sadness used as an essential ingredient of a larger story, rather than for shock-value or in a formulaic fashion.
The story is carried by two extremely likable protagonists, whose contrasting and conflicting personalities balance each other out very nicely – Ian Lightfoot (voiced by, and almost certainly modeled after, Tom Holland) is the indecisive, socially awkward youngest member of the Lightfoot family, who was born after his father’s death, and thus relies on second-hand accounts of his father to build his own impression of him. Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), the older brother, is something of a gentle giant, with relatable, but niche, interests: ancient history, magic, and mythology. The voice-work on both characters is solid, though unremarkable – which possibly benefits Pratt, as he is controversial enough in his personal life that distancing him from the characters he plays isn’t exactly a bad idea.
The small supporting cast is filled out by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as the Lightfoots’ mother, Laurel, whose almost superhuman strength (seemingly obtained through routine aerobics sessions) feels like it should be more of a big deal than it is; The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), once an Athena-esque figure of legend who gifted heroes with magical weapons and wisdom, now a worn-down restaurant owner just trying to host karaoke night; and Lena Waithe as “Pixar’s first openly gay character”, a cop who appears in one scene and has a single line of dialogue referencing her girlfriend’s kid. It’s a small step forward for the LGBTQ+ community, but in a film where Laurel Lightfoot and The Manticore share several scenes together and have undeniable chemistry as they go on their own little lawless adventure to restore The Manticore to her former glory, it’s also a missed opportunity.
The quality of the film’s animation is nowhere near as spectacular as films like Coco or Brave – but in the world we now live in, it’s possible Onward will be nominated for an Oscar simply because so many other animated films will be pushed back to next year.
Honestly, if no better challenger arrives on the scene between now and next Oscar season, I wouldn’t mind seeing this unfortunate underdog eke out a win. Not only do I relish the thought of a sequel (yeah, yeah, I know, Pixar wants to focus on original content: well, tell them to stop coming up with original content that demands a follow-up!), but I think it would be welcome compensation for the film’s lost audience appeal and box-office returns – not to mention petty vengeance on coronavirus for all the damage and disruption it’s caused.
The past few days, we’ve been through all the basics: what Amazon Prime needs to do in their upcoming The Lord Of The Rings adaptation; what they should do; and, of course, what they should never do. So with that in mind…how many more “Top 10” lists can I think of? The answer is: at least one more, because today we’ll be looking at the ten characters I’m most hyped to see in The Lord Of The Rings.
As always, let me throw out a quick reminder to all of my readers who haven’t been following along (though, if you haven’t been at least following this series of posts, then why are you here now?): Amazon Prime’s series is not a straight-up adaptation of the best-selling novel by J.R.R. Tolkien – instead, it’s set at least three-thousand years prior to the events of that story, during a time period known as the Second Age. Thus, most of the characters you know and love won’t show up in the series, except a handful of immortals such as Galadriel, Elrond, Thranduil, and Sauron. All of these characters, however, will be either significantly younger, or just very different with regards to personalities, appearances, motivations, etc.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at my list, shall we?
10: Thranduil. Firstly, let me apologize for a glaring factual error in one of my previous posts, where I referred to Thranduil and his father Oropher, both Sindarin Elves of great prestige, as Silvan Elves. In fact, it’s partially because of this error that I realized Thranduil belongs on this list – the King of the Elves of Mirkwood (called Greenwood in the Second Age, and ruled from the hilltop city of Amon Lanc, which would later fall into ruin and be renamed Dol Guldur) was a Sindarin Elf who nonetheless looked out for his Silvan citizens and treated them with respect and benevolence, seemingly even adopting their “rustic” customs – at least in The Hobbit, where he’s most commonly found feasting in the woods, hunting wild animals or merrymaking. This is the Thranduil I want to see: he should still have some of Lee Pace’s steely, ice-cold hostility, but in private, I’d love for the King of the Woodland Elves to open up to his citizens, to share in their traditions, and to come across as a powerful leader and a guardian for his people.
9: Ar-Pharazôn. Whereas Thranduil was actually a decent guy, Ar-Pharazôn, the twenty-fifth and final king of Númenor, only gets worse when you learn more about him. On the surface, he doesn’t seem too bad: he was just a particularly strong-willed, stubborn and slightly dim-witted military commander who happened to get tricked by Sauron into declaring war on the gods and invading paradise, right? But how did he become King of Númenor in the first place? Well, by unlawfully marrying his cousin against her will, of course. The Dark Lord Sauron, ostensibly the King’s prisoner, flattered Ar-Pharazôn with lies until he was at last given freedom to come and go as he pleased in Númenor. It wasn’t long before Ar-Pharazôn had consented to worshiping the ancient evil Morgoth, and the ritual sacrifice of political prisoners. He burned the White Tree of the Elves, severing that link between the two peoples. And, yeah, he did also doom his country (not to mention untold numbers of his own citizens) to a horrific, watery end – all because he thought he could live forever if he bested the gods in open warfare. Still, I can’t wait to see this villainous puppet of Sauron’s get pulled apart in real-time.
8: Elrond. We’ve seen Elrond Half-Elven, master of the Last Homely House of Rivendell and bearer of the Ring of Air, a couple of times on the big screen before – but always as a stern, proud scholar with a particularly melancholy attitude towards life and humans in general (not entirely surprising: considering that most of the problems of the Second Age resulted from his brother’s decision to become a human Man instead of an Elf). The Elrond that we’ll meet in Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings is going to be very young by Elven standards: so when I consider what his personality might be like, I imagine him as a generally optimistic and light-hearted individual who hasn’t yet been weathered and worn down by centuries of pain and sorrow. He hasn’t probably even met his future wife, Celebrían (who will eventually be tortured by Orcs until she can no longer bear to live in Middle-earth), and he has no idea he’ll one day be called upon to bear the weight of one of the Three Rings (which I’m sure King Gil-galad will give to him shortly before his brutal death at the hands of Sauron). Let’s just say: he’s in for a ride.
7: Glorfindel. This guy is one of the coolest in all of Middle-earth’s history – and when I say all of it, I mean all of it, because he’s been around for just as long as characters like Galadriel and Círdan, and been to Valinor, Middle-earth, the Halls of Mandos and everywhere in between. Originally an Elf of Gondolin who sacrificed his life to save fleeing refugees in the First Age, Glorfindel was judged to be so pure and good that he was almost immediately reincarnated and sent back to Middle-earth to help out the Elves during their war with Sauron in the Second Age. Not only that, but he was given semi-magical powers that put him almost on the level of Maiar like Gandalf. Throughout the Second Age, he fought alongside the Elves, rarely using his powers in war, and continued on into the Third Age as a great warrior and hero of legend, challenging the Witch-King, leading armies and rescuing Frodo Baggins. Remind me again why Legolas was chosen to represent the Elves on Frodo’s quest and not Glorfindel? Oh right, becauseGlorfindel was so powerful that Sauron would have sensed him coming from miles away, that’s why. Yet despite this, we’ve never seen him onscreen. Even if they do nothing else right, I will be forever grateful to Amazon if they make Glorfindel a major player in the series.
6: Erendis. In The Lord Of The Rings, there are far fewer women characters than men, and even some of the most prominent, like Galadriel and Arwen, are still only in a couple of chapters. But that’s not the case in the Second Age and Middle-earth’s ancient histories, where strong and complex women populate the legends – and one of the most interesting is Erendis. This Númenórean noblewoman put up with a lot; from her husband, her family, and her patriarchal society. But she wasn’t afraid to make enemies (she even publicly declared herself to be the personal nemesis of the divine Maia, Uinen, one of Númenor’s patron goddesses), and she stood her ground when attacked for her beliefs – which were radical for her time, as she counseled her daughter never to submit to the will of men. She’s loud, she’s persistent, and she’s exactly the type of character I want to see in Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings.
5: Tar-Ancalimë. Erendis’ daughter was no less interesting: neglected by her absent father and raised only by her mother and the women of their sheep-farm, Ancalimë almost never encounters men before suddenly becoming the first ruling Queen of Númenor. This scenario screams to be depicted onscreen: in my mind, I picture it playing out much like the film Elizabeth (in which The Lord Of The Rings‘ very own Cate Blanchett starred in the lead role), but with the newly-crowned Tar-Ancalimë having no one to turn to for counsel but herself and the advice of her mother. We don’t know much about the Queen’s reign, save that it was one of the longest in Númenórean history, and, in an act of revenge against her father, she withheld aid from her father’s ally, Gil-galad, during his war against Sauron. With so much blank space, there’s plenty of room to write new material.
4: Celebrimbor. Though only briefly mentioned in The Lord Of The Rings proper, Celebrimbor is one of the few Second Age characters that general audiences might know, thanks to the incredible popularity of the Shadow Of Mordor video games – the games themselves are not a very accurate adaptation of Middle-earth (as should have been obvious when they had Celebrimbor’s ghost team up with a Gondorian Ringwraith, a human version of Shelob, and Gollum to forge his own Ring and take down Sauron), but they did at least introduce a bunch of people to the character of Celebrimbor, and his identity as the craftsman behind the Rings of Power. Last of the line of Fëanor, Celebrimbor inherited much of his grandfather’s rebellious attitude, though he is generally viewed in a more positive light than his violent ancestors. Most of his faults were either exacerbated by or derived from Sauron, who deceived Celebrimbor into trusting him. Sadly, that was to be Celebrimbor’s fatal mistake, and he was killed after months of exhausting torture, refusing to disclose the locations of the other Rings of Power that he had forged. The Elf’s mangled body soon became one of Sauron’s favorite military souvenirs and hung from a banner when the Dark Lord marched into battle.
3: The Witch-King. Very little is known about any of the nine mortal men doomed to die, all of whom willingly bound their lives to the fate of Sauron and his One Ring in a bid for…what, exactly? Did they desire immortality? Magic? Power? We don’t know. Tolkien wrote that at least three of them were Númenóreans – likely imperialist military officers dispatched to Middle-earth to safeguard the empire’s colonies, who fell under the Dark Lord’s sway while there. Some of them may have been sorcerers. The only named member of the Nine was Khamûl, and he was an Easterling. But who was the enigmatic Witch-King, whom prophecy foretold would never be slain by any man? There’s no hint as to his true name, personality, or motivation for accepting one of the Nine Rings – which means Amazon Prime can do whatever they want with the character.
2: Galadriel. She’s always been my favorite character in the Tolkien legendarium, and not just because she was masterfully portrayed by Cate Blanchett in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. In Tolkien’s published works, you only see a tiny fraction of this heroine’s long and eventful life in Middle-earth: it’s only when you begin to find mentions of her in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales that you realize she is fascinating, nuanced, and, honestly, more complex than most of Tolkien’s male heroes. She started out as a woman of great physical strength, who participated in a variety of sports in her homeland of Valinor and was described as being an Amazon. She openly defied the Valar and chose to leave Valinor to pursue fortune and glory in Middle-earth, and when called upon to repent for that “crime” at the end of the First Age, she refused. She was an open-minded and intelligent leader: she fostered a close friendship with the Dwarves when other Elves shunned them, and she viewed them with the keen eye of a commander, helping them to ready their armies against Sauron’s onslaughts in the Second Age. She and her husband traveled all over Middle-earth, searching for allies in the coming war, settling in several different locations. She presumably led troops into battle on many occasions. In the Third Age, she gave magical aid to heroes such as Eorl and Frodo Baggins, and she entered Dol Guldur and drove back the darkness that hung over Mirkwood. And these are just the highlights of her life! If she’s not also my favorite character in the Amazon Prime series, I’d be very surprised.
1: Sauron. The only character I could see possibly vying with Galadriel for my undivided affection in the Second Age is…Sauron, base master of treachery, shape-shifting dark wizard and sadistic fallen angel. But that’s because Sauron, while he is indeed a villain, is still a villain with a purpose – and a good one, too. Originally a divine Maia whose chief virtue was supposedly perfectionism, Sauron was allured by the demonic deity Morgoth, whose visionary ideas of reformation appealed to him. Sauron, however, disagreed with Morgoth on many issues: in particular, he had no desire to see the world destroyed, instead hoping for a future in which he could be Middle-earth’s sole leader, and build a perfect utopia for himself and all his loyal subjects. Upon Morgoth’s fall, Sauron decided to make this a reality: he refused to repent for his crimes against the Valar, instead taking a beautiful human form and going among the Elves, offering them a chance to rebuild the world alongside him. At this point, Tolkien was explicit in saying that he was not fully evil. He did, in fact, want to make the world a better place – but because he could not be content with any imperfection in his plan, and because he had turned away from the teachings of Eru, the True God, and so could only mimic Morgoth’s flawed designs, he failed in his purpose and slipped into a feral rage, becoming tyrannical and too ambitious to be contained. That’s a great villain arc right there: all too often I hear people say that Sauron is a one-dimensional floating eye in the sky (I mean, it’s hard to even find an image for this post that isn’t of him as a floating eye!), and all I have to say to those people is that they’re wrong, and I will not tolerate your foolish arguments…and yes, I realize I just sounded like Sauron, so what?
Do you like my list? Would you add a couple more characters to it, or remove some? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!