Sunday, November 20, 2016

Finding Dory

     Genie, Olaf, Mushu, Edna, Sebastian. These are just a few of the memorable scene-stealing side characters that have brought stories to life. The charm of the quirky side characters is that it allows our protagonist to focus on their purpose, while the supporting character can be caught up in all manner of mischief and humor, inevitably making them more interesting and lovable than the character they exist to accompany.

     Dory is just such a one. Over a decade ago, the adorably forgetful blue fish's chance encounter with Marlin the clownfish and ensuing adventure made Dory one of the most beloved animated characters of all time. The brilliance of Ellen DeGeneres' voice acting of the supporting character completely stole the show, and Dory has been one of the most recognizable faces of Pixar ever since.

     Dory's incurable short-term memory loss made it inevitable that she would eventually lose Marlin and Nemo, but Finding Dory is not as much about the father-son combo seeking her out as you might think. Finding Dory is as much about Dory finding herself as it is about her being found. While the script is fairly predictable, Dory's journey to discover her identity and home delivered unexpected emotional punch, but sandwiched it between enough comic levity and preposterous peril to keep it from getting weighed down in lengthy sentimentality or heavy-handed pathos. Moments tugged on particular heartstrings, but not in Up style devastation.

     Finding Dory very much feels like a reverse of Finding Nemo. Where Nemo featured a father looking for a son while the son tried to escape the confines of a fish tank, Dory features the child seeking her parents within the confines of a much much larger fish tank-- a conservatory be exact, not unlike Sea World, but with a repeated purpose to rehabilitate and release the animals back into the ocean (a distinction made necessary by Blackfish no doubt). Nemo received help from another fish desperate to return to the ocean, while Dory receives help from an octopus desperate to stay away from the ocean, far preferring his life of captivity.

     Finding Dory is an altogether worthy follow-up to the classic Finding Nemo, being effervescent and full of heart, but also putting a few nicks on that heart. But with Pixar, that's really to be expected by now. Although it doesn't strike me as being on par with its predecessor, nor being quite as memorable on its own, it does well as a sequel.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange

     "Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by our reaction to them. And if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next." Dr. Ben Carson, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story

    If you thought Tony Stark was the most arrogant and pompous egomaniac to ever become a superhero, Dr. Stephen Strange may present some competition for that title. Strange is a self-made man whose gifted hands have made him a savior to many hopeless medical cases. His precise skills as a surgeon have brought him wealth, fame, and a proud sense of entitlement to all the worship that his successes have ushered in. Strange has little concern for anyone outside of their ability to further inflate his ego; he is a god in his own eyes.

     In the blink of an eye, the hands that were once so skilled, steady, and precise, are replaced with shaking and palsied hands that can barely clutch a pen in their curled fingers. Broken, devastated, yet unhumbled and unable to accept the failed outcomes of one medical lead after another, Stephen's narcissistic determination drives him to the far eastern lands of Nepal to seek a more unconventional healing for his physical obstacles. But of course, as this is Marvel, he will most certainly find more than he was looking for.

     Benedict Cumberbatch seems to shine most when portraying egotistical social deviants, and Doctor Strange is no exception. Whether it's the knowledge that for better or worse, this is your protagonist, or the inexplicable draw that current audiences have towards less than upright heroes,  you can't help but hope for the best for Strange, despite his persistently mortifying self-importance. He is genuinely pitiful as he unsteadily walks the line between pretentious denial and looming despair. But then again, it's a bit of a pleasure to watch him fumble and trip his way through learning the crafts of the Ancient One. The sharpness of his wit never dulls, but eventually his self-absorption transforms into something more noble, and he even learns to care. More importantly, he learns to regret.

      Dr. Strange stands out as one of the most original and engaging origin stories we've seen from MCU in a while. Every origin story has something unique to it, but Dr. Strange rises above the standard in almost every way. Visually, Dr. Strange is colorful and mesmerizingly psychedelic, but stylishly avoids the empty grandeur and self-conscious pomp of Thor, for example. Instead, the kaleidoscopic visuals bend and fracture hypnotically to serve the story and illustrate the limitless expanse beyond our dimension.

     Furthermore, Dr. Strange does not weigh itself down in obligatory exposition, but concerns itself only with the here, now, and onwards. Did Stephen Strange hail from a privileged family, or did his own determination lift himself out of the ghettos? Refreshingly, we don't know because we don't have to. We know that Stephen had a rather ill-fated romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (played with grounded maturity by Rachel McAdams) at some point in the off-screen past, but it takes little imagination to surmise why it ended. Flashbacks would have been too confusing in this mind-bending world of mirroring dimensions, so the chronological story helps to keep things grounded enough to avoid feeling hallucinatory.

     Dr. Strange is full of lively characters and snappy dialogue amidst its celebrated CGI features. Even the characters that initially seem archetypal break the mold. The Ancient One, for example, is a far cry from the sagely Obi-Wan Kenobi, hardened leader R'as Al Ghul, or even the worldly-wise Professor X; the Ancient One is equal parts eccentric mentor and comic relief, while being a fluidly moving warrior herself. Dr. Christine Palmer is no damsel in distress, nor is she the lovesick lady who vows to always love her man. Christine is a strong and independent woman who is kind to Stephen, but perfectly capable of walking away when his behavior becomes inexcusable. Baron Mordo at first seems to fulfill the role of the mentor's butler, or maybe a future sidekick, but if you wait for the famous post-credits scenes that MCU loves to tease with, you'll know that there's more to him yet to be revealed. Really, the villain is the only one who doesn't surprise much. That's not to say that Mads Mikkelson plays his part poorly-- quite the contrary, he fulfills his role excellently-- but that his role is just straightforward.

     A few months ago, I believed that MCU and DC movies were on the decline as the trend of superhero infatuation seemed to be dwindling fast. With most of the major superheroes already covered in at least two movies each if not more, things were starting to feel stale and unoriginal. Dr. Strange delivers a new, fresh, vibrant installment to the MCU, carrying with it a unique superhero and an excellent actor. Whatever future installments may bring, Dr. Strange easily ranks among the best of the MCU, proving that there are a few more tricks yet to be seen from comic book movies.