Monday, May 31, 2021

Cruella - Disney's Latest Darling

Here's a fun puzzle: How do you retell the story of a puppy-skinning psychopath who smokes at least a pack a day for modern audiences and make the person not only relatable but likable? 

The answer: You cast Emma Stone as the puppy-skinning psychopath. 

Beware: There be spoilers ahead. 

Sympathy for the DeVil

Cruella jumps us back to the titular character's childhood where she always had a knack for misbehaving and for extreme fashion, both of which kept her in constant trouble. Called Stella by her mother, she meets her lifelong friend Anita Darling and is forced to move to London after getting expelled from her school. After some next level Disney tragedy she becomes an orphan living on the streets of London with her two new friends, Horace and Jasper, and their dogs, Buddy and Wink. They grow up as thieves with Cruella dreaming of becoming a high fashion designer. 

Stella gets her chance to work for the Baroness, the Devil Wears Prada of 1970's London fashion, played gloriously by Emma Thompson, where she excels as a beginner designer, until she finds out that her boss killed her mom. Drama ensues as Stella plots to take revenge on the evil Baroness and embrace her true Cruella self. 

You'll notice that nowhere did I mention Dalmatians. While Dalmatians, three in fact, do play a role in the plot they are not the absolute crux of the story. They seem like they would be at one point, but more on that later. The main focus of the story is on Cruella realizing that while her inner true self may not be what society accepts, it is who she truly is, and that letting her freak flag fly is the only way to live her authentic self. 

Bad Vs. Evil

The trick to making films about villains is to frame their actions as believable and relatable, and Disney tends to go with vengeance as a good motivator (Going the slow and complete destruction of a person's psyche Joker style is probably too far from Disney's family friendly label). Cruella as a character is framed here as being bad, going against the grain but having moral lines she won't cross unless absolutely necessary. 

In a brilliant piece of cinematic writing, the audience is set up to wonder just how far Disney will come to the line of making Cruella evil by ambiguously implying that she did skin a dog to make a coat. When it's revealed that she didn't and only wore a fabulously spotted coat to egg on her enemy the sense of relief is palpable. Cruella may hint at skinning an innocent doggo, but as long as she has access to a JoAnne's Fabric the act won't be necessary. 

Worth the $30? 

The big question hanging over a lot of new releases on Disney Plus are around the Premier Access price for new movies, an extra $30 to see the movie when it's released. While I can't speak for certain on Disney's last two attempts, Mulan  and Raya and the Last Dragon, I will say that Cruella was well worth the $30. Considering that we were finally able to host a watch party with friends, the cost of tickets vs the cost of Premier Access was more than even. If you're scrolling through your Disney Plus account and wondering if it's worth it, I say it is, though watch it a couple times to feel like you got your money's worth. 


Friday, May 28, 2021

Heroes of the Forgotten Realms - D&D Avengers

Dungeons and Dragons is certainly enjoying a new golden age, evident by all the new books, video games, toys, TV shows and Magic the Gathering crossovers that are coming out this year. Featuring foremost in are Dungeons and Dragons long-lived stars, the Heroes of Mitheral Hall. While new fans may be more familiar with Vox Machina and the Mighty Nein, I figured it'll be helpful to talk about Dungeons and Dragons OG stars. 

Plus it gives me a chance to gush over my favorite dark elf, Drizzt. :)

Welcome to the Forgotten Realms

If you're looking at Dungeons and Dragons products produced by Wizards of the Coast you'll probably see the Forgotten Realms thrown around. This is D&D's basic world. This is where most of the adventure books take place, where most of the books take place, and where nearly all the video games take place. It's a world where magic is a thing, Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes and all sorts of other people and monsters live alongside humans and where something is always happening that require the need for adventurers. The world has every biome and setting for any basic D&D campaign, and the stories written for it can easily be transplanted into any dungeon master's homebrew setting. It's not the most innovative universe, since it's basically Middle Earth the next generation, but sometimes that's all you need for some great adventures. 

And Now for the Star of Our Show: Drizzt

Drizzt Do'Urden (Don't ask me how to properly pronounce it) is unarguably the main character in D&D's Forgotten Realms push. Premering in 1988 in R.A. Salvatore's The Crystal Shard series as a secondary character, Drizzt quickly became a fan favorite and now has nearly 40 books published about his adventures, plus appearing all over D&D merchandise. 

Born a Drow (dark elf) in the underground city of his people, Drizzt learned that he had something most other Drow were not born with: a consience. He escaped his dark homeland, coming to the surface to embrace a new life where he can follow his heart, despite quickly realizing that his dark heritage will always mark him as an outsider to people who don't know him. His ebony skin and white hair forever marking him as one of the realm's most dangerous people. Armed with his scimitars, an incredible fighting skill and his magical panther Guenhwyvar. 

I have to admit that despite my love of the character (I own the Funko Pop and am planning on obtaining the Magic the Gathering card as soon as it comes out), the character does come across as a bit of a Mary Sue, usually able to either outwit or outfight any problem he comes across. He's heralded as one of the best fighters in o'er the land and everyone who gets to know him wants to be his best friend unless they're a bad guy and even then they usually respect him. That all being said I love Drizzt for his unashamed awesomeness and his angsty little journal entries we get throughout the books where he contemplates the meaning of his existence in a world that will always hate and misunderstand him. There's a charm that Drizzt brings to the experience that for me similar characters like Batman and Wolverine just can't seem to match. Maybe it's the high fantasy. Maybe it's how cool Drow society is depicted in the fictions. I don't know, but there's a reason audiences have fallen in love with him and why he is overused by the Dungeons and Dragons writers. 

Bruenor Battlehammer-A Dwarf to Beat All Dwarves

You know how Gimli from the Lord of the Rings films started off as an awesome warrior but by the end devolved into someone's annoying uncle? Bruenor is Gimli if he never devolved. Born the prince of Mitheral Hall his people had to flee after an attack by deep Dwarves (Deeper Dwarves, just go with it) and they fled to the frigid lands of Icewind Dale. Eventually he gathered a group to retake his ancestral land and reclaim the ancient throne for himself and his people. 

Bruenor is a warrior/smithy/king/nanny who is not afraid to confront every problem with a swinging axe or hammer, but only after deciding the best place to put said hammer or axe. He's a brilliant battle strategist and cunning warrior, demonstrating that height means nothing to a Dwarf. He is also prone to picking up strays, as nearly his entire adventuring party ends up being people he adopted because they had nowhere else to go, including Drizzt his lonely friend, Cattie-Brie his adopted human daughter, Wulfgar his adopted human son, and Regis the Halfling who he keeps alive because someone needs to. It gives Bruenor depth to know that he can be at one moment a warrior king and in the next a protective father and friend. 

Catti-Brie, the Not-So-Token Female

At a young age, Catti-Brie's family was killed in a goblin raid. Before she joined them, the girl was rescued by a Dwarven patrol, lead by Bruenor. He adopted the girl and raised her in the mines beneath Icewind Dale, where she learned the values of the Dwarven people. Her education included fighting prowess at the hands of her adopted father, and she thus has become a skilled warrior in her own right. Combined with her enchanted bow and heavy Scottish accent (Thank you again Tolken) she picked up from her adopted people, she's basically high-fantasy Merida, which is not a bad thing. 

Wulfgar, the Blonde One

Another stray adopted by Bruenor, Wulfgar didn't join the Dwarf until he was in his late teens having grown up among the barbarians of the frigid north. He was shown mercy by the dwarf during battle who only saw a scared child inside a warrior's body. Wulfgar was held as a prisoner for several years, until he understood that his people could benefit just as much from peace as from raiding, a rare intelligent conclusion coming from the muscle bound barbarian. Wulfgar has been shown to let pride take place of reason, including waking up a sleeping dragon so he could fight it properly, and not realizing until deep in the adventure that the person who tried to sew discord among his party was an enemy in disguise-long after everyone already knew, including him. Wulfgar is a magnificent warrior, especially after wielding Aegis Fang, the magical war hammer crafted by Bruenor specifically for the barbarian, but they're are times when he's lucky he's good at something besides thinking. 

Regis Rumblebelly

Regis is a character that does not get his just due. While the rest of the heroes show up frequently across media, Regis is usually absent, presumably because nobody wants to play as a fat little Hobbit. Hailing from the deep south, Regis found himself in trouble with the head of the thieves guild he was part of, mainly because he stole the leader's enchanted ruby pendant. The Halfling fled north and became a prominent member of the Icewind Dale community and friends with Bruenor et al,  becoming yet another person for Bruenor to look after. Regis is a decent thief and con artist, usually apt at escaping situations he can't handle rather then confronting them head on, which has lead to no end of trouble. Nicknamed Rumblebelly by Bruenor for always wanting something to eat, the Halfling nevertheless has gained the respect of the traveling companions, and even becoming a general in Bruenor's Dwarven army, a position never given to non-Dwarves. Regis demonstrates that being clever is sometimes better than being strong.

The Big Deal

So my fanboy level gushing aside, the entire Forgotten Realms franchise is a marketing exercise that has grown into a beast of its own. Originally meant to sell Dungeons and Dragons to new audiences, the stories have created fans that could give less than a baby owlbear pellet for the game, and many people who play the game have never heard of Drizzt or his friends outside of the occasional reference in the Player's Handbook. We can attribute the reemergence of the companions this year mainly to the popularity of Critical Role and similar D&D games broadcast over the internet which renewed interest in the game in ways that the company could only dream of. To take advantage of the hype and steer new fans towards Wizard's existing franchises, the heroes of Mitheral Hall are being displayed front and center. Time will only tell if it works, and existing fans can only help the hype increases visibility of the characters and doesn't lead to something disasterous in the same vein as making Raven a comic relief character in Teen Titans Go!

Don't mess with my Drow, Wizards. 


Monday, May 24, 2021

Why Boy Meets World is Still Relevant

My wife and I are finishing up a re-watch of Girl Meets World. Every time we watch, we naturally have the desire to re-watch Boy Meets World as well. It’s been over 20 years since the show ended and yet it still remains just as poignant as ever. The technology and the pop culture references might be a bit dated (read: nostalgic) but the stories hold up over time. So let’s talk about those for a second.


Early on in the series, Cory made a bet with Feeny that he could be a better teacher. It was a simple idea meant to teach Cory a lesson, but it got real fast when Eric’s friend was hurt by a racial slur. The incident impacted how Cory went on to teach about Anne Frank. What a way to teach 6th graders about racism and discrimination. As a white male, I can’t say I’ve ever really been discriminated against, but this episode hits me every time. I can’t put into words how real this made things for me. So give “Teacher’s Bet” a watch to see how Cory handled it all.


A couple episodes in the series really hit hard about appropriate boundaries and expectations for interacting with other people (particularly members of the opposite sex). The first happened in “Chick Like Me” when Shawn had a rude awakening to his own faults, when (dressed up as a girl) he felt pressured beyond his comfort when a boy made a pass at him. The second episode happened later on in Cory’s college years during “Everybody Loves Stuart” when a young college professor tried to push boundaries with Topanga, making her feel unsafe. With sexual assault being a devastating issue these days (I swear it's worse and worse as the years pass), it’s important to understand boundaries and to teach it on a teen show back in the late nineties blows me away. (Also, you need to watch Cory throw a punch at Stuart in that episode (played by his real life brother, Fred Savage)

The Family We Choose

I came from a good family with reliable, loving parents. Unfortunately, not everyone does. Shawn was one of those unfortunate cases, leaving him feeling like he didn’t belong anywhere. In “Cult Fiction”, this feeling took Shawn to the arms of a Mr. Mack and his “Centre”. We don’t know exactly what kind of financial, emotional, or physical way Mr. Mack was using Shawn, but it was clear that Turner, Feeny, and the Matthews had reason not to trust him. It was in episodes like this that Shawn was able to get a glimpse into which relationships really mattered to him. Even though he didn’t have a reliable set of parents, he chose to make the Matthews and Mr. Turner into his family. A lesson that would go with him into Girl Meets World when he befriended and mentored Maya.


So I talked about boundaries already, but Boy Meets World also tackled the idea of abuse. In “Dangerous Secret” Shawn found out that his friend Claire was being physically abused by her father. Like many abuse victims, she didn’t want to report her dad at first and just focused on getting her a safe place to sleep each night. But for the other teens, what to do? Call the cops? Put her on a bus? The episode had a happy ending, but it posed many questions that you wouldn’t have expected teenagers to have to consider. Domestic abuse still happens twenty years later, but knowing how to respond is the first step.


The show did a fantastic job portraying various aspects of romantic relationships. As the teens figured out dating, high school, college, and marriage, it was natural for the subject of sex to come up over the years. In “Dangerous Secret” after misunderstanding Shawn’s relationship with Claire, Cory acted almost as though Topanga owed him sex. Big no no. Later on, in “Prom-ises, Prom-ises”, we got the consequence of (possibly) unprotected sex when Amy and Alan discovered they were pregnant again. The reveal of which taught Cory and Topanga some self-restraint and responsibility. The way this show talked about sex was done in a respectful way that I don’t feel like happens anymore. And I didn't even dig into that time when everyone thought Cory slept with Topanga in the computer lab.

Like I said before, I’m looking forward to re-watching Boy Meets World. It’s one of those shows that has aged so well that it’s still worth watching and re-watching twenty years later. Not the case with every show. I guess we’re all meeting the world when we watch it.

"Boy Meets World... Now I get it."

Friday, May 21, 2021

New Pokemon Snap Photo Showcase!

 I've already discussed the wonders and delights that is Pokemon Snap, so I won't bore you with the details of Nintendo's New Pokemon Snap which has the same gameplay but more story (Please note that "More" does not imply "Better"). Fact is the game is out, I beat it, it's wonderful, and now for a few hits of serotonin here are my best pics from New Pokemon Snap