My Neighbor Totoro: Big, Fluffy Fun for the Family

Copyright © 1988 by Studio Ghibli

Back again for another dive into the ethereal, breathtaking world of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation. This time, I’m finally getting into one of his classics. One of the most popular films in his collection, and the one that gave Studio Ghibli its big furry mascot.

Set in 1958, My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, two sisters who move into a new home with their father, a university professor with a heart of gold. As the girls adjust to their new surroundings, they discover far more than they anticipated. Soot sprites litter their empty rooms, and outdoors, the girls find nature spirits like the Catbus and the large, friendly giant that Mei names “Totoro.” Satsuki and Mei do their best to navigate their new lives in town and their new connection with the local spirits, with little to no serious conflict along the way.

It’s a common enough staple in Miyazaki films, but here, I could get a sense that the girls Satsuki and Mei were genuinely children, both in their animation and their voice acting. They were high-spirited, energetic, obsessive, and curious about the world. Just within the first five minutes, you can feel their energy as real kids, and not just as some adult’s idea of what kids might say or do. Their performance fit in well with the whole dynamic of Totoro and the other spirits they meet.

One aspect that kept throwing me was how long it took before we actually got into the stock weirdness (or central premise) of the story. We don’t meet the famous Totoro until about 40 minutes into the 90-minute film. A lot of scenes in between encounters with the wood spirits are active and engaging all by themselves, but they also drain most of the energy from the rest of the interactions between Satsuki, Mei, and the adults in their lives. I know Miyazaki’s style was to focus more on compelling visuals than on a consistent plot, but when the compelling visuals of Totoro and the other spirits weren’t onscreen, I had to fight off a sense of boredom with the rest of the movie.

I will admit that there’s a nice contrast between the plot involving Totoro and the girls’ subplot of parental issues. Between their hardworking father and their mother who’s in the hospital for a long-term illness, the kids are often left to their own devices. More specifically, Satsuki oscillates between the responsible sibling and another carefree child like her little sister Mei. It’s no wonder that they would want to seek out the joys and magic of life with Totoro instead of confront the harsh world waiting at home, where Moms disappear and Dads are too busy.

While I don’t have the same fond memories of this movie as so many other people do, I do see why it’s so popular. It’s not a film that demands a lot from its audience. Instead, it offers a quiet, whimsical tale set in the countryside, where we can forget the bigger world and be kids again, if only for 90 minutes or so.

The English dub of My Neighbor Totoro is available through Disney Movies.

Bibliography: My Neighbor Totoro. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toru Hara. Edited by Takeshi Seyama. Perf. (English) Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Frank Welker, Tim Daly, and Lea Salonga. Studio Ghibli. Toho (distributor). Original release date: April 15, 1988.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Same Galaxy, Same Heroes, and Some Fresh Beats

Copyright © 2017 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I have to be honest, here. The last Marvel Cinematic Universe film I watched in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. Not that I’m not intrigued by what the studios have put out since then, but nothing else really matched the insane energy and ethos of that movie. It seems only fitting, then, that I hit the theater last week to watch its sequel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 picks up pretty soon after where we left off with the first movie. Our heroes—Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot—are flying across the galaxytaking odd heroic jobs for money. After a job with the “superior race” of the Sovereign goes south (thanks to Rocket’s last-minute petty theft and snark), the Guardians find themselves hunted. Even worse, Gamora’s sister Nebula and the Ravagers under Yondu, Peter’s old mentor, take up the pursuit. Our heroes then split off when Peter encounters his long-last father, Ego (played by Kurt Russell). But Ego’s intentions aren’t what they appear to be, and soon the gang is striving to get back together, uncover the truth, and stop a maniacal plot that—you guessed it—threatens the whole galaxy.

I must admit that, when this film started rolling, I was a little bit thrown. It didn’t have quite the space adventure flair that the first Guardians film had. Vol. 1 (if we can call it that now) had an obvious Dark Lord, a quest, a magical item, and tons of space battles from start to finish. Vol. 2, meanwhile, has a more introspective take on its adventure. Sure, they’re saving the galaxy again, but it’s from a more personal threat. And in the meantime, they’re dealing with their personal issues, from fatherhood (Peter and Yondu) to estranged siblings (Gamora and Nebula) to self-worth (Drax, Mantis, and Rocket).

Not that any of this is bad, mind you. I mean, this is Peter Quill coming to terms with his heritage. That kind of soul-searching is expected (and, at times, a little obvious considering where the main twist was headed). But nowhere did I expect to love every single scene between Rocket Raccoon and Yondu. They were two of a kind in this film and I couldn’t get enough of them. Especially in the epic Ravager battle in the midpoint (you know the one, where the Jay and the Americans song starts playing up).

Meanwhile, I do like some of the new characters they’ve added. Mantis is a bit one-note at first, but her interactions with Drax and even Gamora add a lot of personality over time. She’s genuinely sweet in an otherwise cynical universe. And there’s the introduction of Stakar Ogord, a top dog Ravager, played by honest-to-God Sylvester Stallone. Honestly, the movie would be lesser without him in the role. He made it his own, and he has a great tie-in to Yondu’s story.

And on that note, let’s talk about Yondu. Without spoiling anything, he’s the unsung hero of this entire story. As much as I like Quill (and I do!), Yondu had a pretty good character arc. We learn a lot about his past and we get to see him grow a little. Which is appropriate when you pair him up with Rocket, and you learn that, between the two, Yondu’s a little more humane than his furry counterpart. But this is also a story about fatherhood, and Peter’s learned as much from Yondu as he has from his mother back on Earth. Watching their interactions adds a depth to the film’s central theme: that family isn’t about genetics, but who’s in your corner.

If you liked the first Guardians movie, then you’ll like this one, too. It has the same great characters, all shown in a new dimension, and it’s a rip-roaring series of twists from start to finish. It’s also a science fiction film with a good emotional core, beyond all the cool stunts and visuals. I wouldn’t quite say it’s better than the original, but at least it’s on par and I’d rather watch these outer space comic tours out of anything else Marvel is offering these days.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is available through Marvel Studios. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Directed by James Gunn. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by James Gunn. Based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Perf. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Baustista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillian, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russell. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: May 5, 2017.


Star Vs. The Forces of Evil: Magical Girls and My Family’s Culture

Copyright © 2015 by Disney-ABC Domestic Teleivision

Let’s be honest: it’s a good era for animation. We’ve got Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, and so much more, made for both kids and adults. And I’m quite honestly bummed that one of my absolute favorites, Gravity Falls, is no longer with us. But as luck would have it, I’ve discovered the next best thing.

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil is a series on Disney X.D. about two kids fighting monsters and magic across multiple dimensions. Star Butterfly is the Princess of Mewni, whose royal parents send her to Earth for a good education. Which brings Star into contact with high school student Marco Diaz and his family. It also means that Star is now a target for villains like Ludo, who desire the powers of her magic wand and revenge against the ruling class of Mewni. Of course, being a wacky show, sometimes the threat is Star herself when she loses control of her powers, which is why it’s handy to have someone like Marco around.

So, I’m not gonna lie. I got huge flashbacks to Gravity Falls when I started watching this show (which was after Gravity Falls‘s series finale). Not that this is a bad thing by any means. There’s the same madcap quality, the same earnest relationships between characters, the same spirit of adventure, and the same super-catchy theme song by Brad Breeck. I mean, even the main characters Marco and Star are essentially Dipper and Mabel Pines, mirroring their personalities almost perfectly. But again, the quality of this show stands on its own. It’s not trying to be Gravity Falls, but works as its own colorful, fantasy-driven series.

I also loved, loved, loved the infusion of Latino culture into this show. Our protagonist is Marco Diaz, with visible and fleshed-out Latino parents. There are various bits of Spanish dropped throughout the show, along with touches of Mexican culture (piñatas, mariachi, etc.). But it’s not a cartoon made solely for Mexican-Americans. It’s a show that can appeal to everyone and still have enough room for playing with specific real-world cultures. Honestly, I’m jealous that this kind of animation wasn’t around when I was a kid.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but often times, it’s hard for me to talk about the animation quality of a show given how much talent and time goes into it these days. When you have a well-known animator like Giancarlo Volpe as a guest director, it’s hard to judge when the show does or doesn’t look so good as it could. But I will say (and it’s a small detail) that some of my favorite recurring bits is the animation on when characters’ eyes go big and glassy, with Star being the most common character for that.

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil is a delight and surprisingly deep, too. Much like Gravity Falls, it has a solid dynamic between two characters that plays well each episode, but it also has tons of untapped backstories and lore within the land of Mewni and the Butterfly family that can be used to tell all sorts of clever stories. I can’t wait to see its third season, and I hope you readers will enjoy it, too, if you’re not already watching.

Star Vs. The Forces of Evil is available through Disney X.D.

Bibliography: Star Vs. The Forces of Evil. Created by Deron Nefcy. Developed by Jordana Arkin and Dave Wasson. Directed by Dominic Bisignano. Perf. Eden Sher, Adam McArthur, and Alan Tudyk. Produced by Deron Nefcy, Dave Wasson, Jordana Arkin, Aaron Hammersley, and Dominic Bisignano. Disney Television Animation. Disney-ABC Domestic Television. Disney X.D. (network). Original broadcast run: January 18, 2015 – present.

Wolf 359: Far From Home, But Close to Danger

Wolf 359
Logo design by Sasha Lamb.

Podcasts are a great modern media for storytelling. I’m actually looking to get into the business myself. But until that day comes, let’s pause and have a moment to enjoy a nice science fiction series about the good folks crewing a space station in Wolf 359.

The story takes place on the space station Hephaestus, set in orbit around a red dwarf star designated Wolf 359. Doug Eiffel, our narrator and protagonist, is the lowly Communications Officer assigned to the station against his will. He attempts to pass his shifts with tons of pop culture references and a constant sweep of the outlying star systems for radio chatter (and possible signs of extraterrestrials). Meanwhile, Eiffel contends with the tough Commander Renee Minkowski and the elusive Dr. Alexander Hilbert, whose lives he sometimes complicates with his lack of professional standards. Eiffel finds solace in his chats with the station’s artificial intelligence, Hera, and occasionally he proves useful whenever a crisis hits the station. Which is often.

It’s easy to see the reusable dynamic between our main cast members. Doug Eiffel plays the snarky, down-on-his-luck protagonist, sometimes by his own schemes and sometimes not. Commander Minkowski is the straight man to Doug’s antics, no-nonsense about each job, but also carrying a heart of gold for everyone on board. Dr. Hilbert varies between eccentric in his mad scientist stereotype (complete with wacky Russian accent!) and downright threatening when the plot kicks in. And Hera, the station’s AI, is ever cheerful and happy to serve… except when she’s not and something is going horribly wrong. Which, again, is often.

I realize that some listeners got tired very quick of this gimmick, and I can see why. I mean, it is a gimmick. In my opinion, it still works for the show. These common roles are good at both comedic and dramatic moments, whether to set up a running gag or to play out the tension of the latest crisis. Much like Welcome to Night Vale, Wolf 359 has several small narrative arcs that serve to deepen the ongoing danger of the environment, without losing too much of the original humor and charm that attracts its audience.

Sure, sometimes the conflicts feel as though they’re setting up for a very obvious resolution. And sometimes they’re not, with plenty of curious twists and upsets. I do think, though, that some of the show’s deeper moments aren’t so much about Doug or Minkowski or Hilbert (the human characters) as they are about Hera (the AI). Her shifts in tone and her evolving personality quirks have yielded some of the most nerve-wracking tension in the entire series, and remember, this is a podcast that features a space station that’s frequently lost orbit and almost fallen into a red dwarf star. Hera’s storylines owe a lot to the writers’ talent and to Michaela Swee’s acting.

I know that Wolf 359 doesn’t have quite the small town horror that a popular podcast like The Black Tapes or Kings Fall AM has, but it does have a charm unto itself. It’s equal parts comedic and tragic, and it never fails to leave me smiling.

New episodes of Wolf 359 are available through their official website, iTunes, and SoundCloud.

Bibliography: Wolf 359 (podcast). Created by Gabriel Urbina. Written by Gabriel Urbina and Sarah Shachat. Produced by Gabriel Urbina and Zach Valenti. Perf. Zach Valenti, Emma Sherr-Ziarko, Michaela Swee, Cecilia Lynn-Jacobs, Zach Libresco, Noah Masur, Michelle Agresti, Scotty Shoemaker, and Ariela Rotenberg. Music by Alan Rodi. Kinda Evil Genius Productions. Broadcast:

Flash Fiction: “The Rainbow Connection”

Today’s story comes to you courtesy from the good folks at Write It Up! in Burbank. I don’t know how it happens, but I got five random prompts that led to this perfect storm of a cute little story.

The Rainbow Connection,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 612

The year was 1993. A week after the big Inauguration in DC, a storm hit the nation’s capital. Heavy gray clouds formed a blockade against clear blue skies and sunlight. This armada sent down torrents of relentless raindrops along the entire length of the Mall. No quarter given. No chance for a perky beginning to the Clinton administration. But standing underneath the awning of a grand hotel’s entrance, Sean watched the rain hit and waited for his chance.

It wasn’t too bad, he thought. At least there’d be a rainbow at the end of all this.

Two months earlier. November, post-electoral victory (for some, at least). Sean Vivell sat groaning and restless on his couch, cordless phone pressed against his ear. He couldn’t think, let alone get a word in edgewise, as his mother rattled on about Cousin Jack. About how great he was at the mortgage business. And, really, why couldn’t Sean be more like Jack, she kept asking.

“Okay, Mom… Mom!” Sean flipped the phone over to his other ear. “I have a job. I keep telling you, I’m a paranormal investigat… yes! Yes, it is! It is a real job, okay? I’ve got a leprechaun in my attic and the equivalent of Thor crashing in my garage!”

Sean felt his stomach tighten. Not an uncommon reaction whenever he and his mother spoke. He didn’t mind sharing stupid details like this. No one ever believed him anyway. That came with the job. But the real horror was what would happen if his parents ever found out about his other pastimes. His other day-to-day experience.

As his mom continued her rant in that fine Arizona twang, Sean smelled grits cooking in the kitchen. He heard his boyfriend humming a jaunty tune as he made breakfast. And as much as he’d rather be by his sweetheart’s side, Sean he couldn’t put this conversation off any longer. He’d known it would be a thing to deal with ever since that night running along the Potomac. One weird case, one wrong turn, and the introduction of a familiar dark-haired stranger had been enough to change Sean’s world forever. He’d never been able to close his eyes to the weirdness of the world after that.

“Hey Mom,” he said, “I’m tied up with work here in DC, but I’ll be in your neck of the woods early next year. How about we have dinner? Yeah. Y-yeah, and there’s someone else I’d like you and Dad to meet…”

It wasn’t the pot of gold that Sean brought his parents that surprised them. Although, really, what else did one expect to find at the end of a rainbow? He had that leprechaun O’Malley to thank for this. At least now his folks could finally pay off their house.

It wasn’t even that Sean had decided to bring his boyfriend over for dinner. His mother had always suspected, but said nothing discouraging. Even with the slight shock on his Dad’s face, Sean knew the old man wasn’t about to disown his already unusual child. It was 1993, after all.

What did surprise them, though, was that Sean’s boyfriend was Elvis Presley. Specifically, the reincarnation of 1968-era Elvis, as smooth and sonorous as ever. Sean could hardly believe it himself sometimes. But as he’d learned in his many trips down the Potomac, it was better not to question whatever spacetime warp had caused such people to step into his world. He hoped his parents wouldn’t raise much of a fuss about it either.

After all, who would refuse the rock n’ roll legend for dinner when he greeted them with a wink and said, “Well, thank you very much”?

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