Sep 12, 2011

Disney's Worst Feature Film

I finally got around to watching The Black Cauldron, which is supposedly the worst animated film ever made by Disney Feature Animation.  It was pretty bad (although I would argue that Dinosaur was a bigger flop). As an animator and a writer, I can't help but analyze animated films.  It hurts me to see a disaster like this one, especially knowing how much talent was wasted on it. 

This Slate article gives a history of what was going on at Disney at the time, so I won't repeat that here.  The biggest problems I saw with this film were 1) the writing (both dialogue and story), and 2) the voice acting.  The animation also had problems, and it looked more low-budget than it was, but it could have held together with a good story.  The special FX were classic Disney and looked nice.  

A hero is only as good as his villain is bad, and vice versa.  In this film, both the hero and the villain are rather pathetic.  They're both passive characters, not taking much initiative to get things done.  The villain relies entirely on a lackey with the mentality of a 3-year-old, while the hero accomplishes everything by accident.  He defeats the villain with a weak little kick.  He saves his friend's life by asking the authorities (a trio of witches) to do it for him.  I think I've seen more story tension in an average episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

This is a perfect illustration of a bad adaptation, and why bad film-making can harm the reputation of the writers and artists involved.  I had no idea that this film was based on a series of fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander.  Frankly, I'd never heard of him, which says something about what happened to his reputation as a novelist.  In the 1970s, he was appreciated enough for Disney Studios to option his novel series.  I assume that this wretched film discouraged his book sales, and it seems the film also discouraged some young animators at the studio enough so they would leave and look for a future career elsewhere.  Don Bluth, John Lasseter, and Tim Burton were among those who left.

I wrote an article about the bad adaptation effect, Down the Tube, published in the Internet Review of Science Fiction (2006). 

Sep 8, 2011

Bioengineering and The Windup Girl

I just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl," and I'm a bit pissed off.  Not as pissed off as I was after reading Scott Smith's "The Ruins," but still irked.  Let's set aside the writing for now, and just talk about the premise of the book.  The supposed science doesn't gel.  As a bioengineered "New Person," Emiko moves with a jerky stutter-stop motion (to mark her as a non-human) and has the loyalty and submissiveness of a dog.  In fact, a genetic scientist character remarks that her gene pool comes partially from a Labrador retriever.

Emiko's submissive behavior strains credulity.  Humans have a very similar pack mentality to dogs, and I think the only reason most people are not blindly submissive to authority is because we can think and reason.  As an intelligent human being (she speaks seven languages), Emiko should be able to overcome her submissive genes.  But even when she's gang raped, Emiko can't help but obey commands.  Right.  In creating the character of Emiko, the author created a fantasy female ... yet another sexbot.  She's cute, tiny, submissive, built for good sex, super-powerful, in need of rescue, and ready to drop to the floor and worship the first man who gives her the time of day.  Oh gee, where have I seen this before?  Could it be Freya from "Saturn's Children?"  Or how about Pepper Potts, who was not engineered to be a sexbot, but was just born that way?  There are too many to name.  To me, this character archetype is very transparent as a male fantasy object.

Oh, and how sexy is stutter-stop motion?  I have trouble believing that scientists would bioengineer sex-slaves who move like creaky robots.  They would find some other, much sexier, way to mark them as different.

Now let's talk about the bioengineered mastadons.  In this futuristic novel, climate change has wreaked havoc and the world is starving to death.  People can no longer rely on petroleum.  So in order to power their computers, people rely on spring or windup mechanisms, gas power, or ... mastadons?!  Yes, that's right.  Apparently these enormous bioengineered elephants are very efficient in converting food to power.  I'm not sure I buy this.  If your country is starving to death, would you rather plant a field full of hay (or whatever mastadons eat), or a field full of wheat or corn for human consumption?  A mastadon must eat a lot more than a human.  Honestly, if this is a survival scenario, I think that any government would put its citizens first, and sell or butcher the poor mastadons.

I wanted to like this novel, since it came so highly recommended, and it won the coveted Hugo Award.  But in addition to the issues I mentioned above, I didn't like any of the characters.  This was a difficult book for me to get through.  The only reason I stuck through until the end was a) because I was listening to it as an audio-book, which makes it easier, and b) high quality prose.  Paolo Bacigalupi writes atmosphere and action equally well.  Several times, I was tempted to stop reading, but some clever little hook pulled me through to the next scene.

I kept hoping to warm to the main characters ... or hoping to see them die in some deservedly unpleasant way.  I was partially rewarded in the end.  The characters never redeem themselves, but several of them get served a piece of justice.

This is Highbrow science fiction, with a capital "H."  It's not about fun characters or a fun story.  It's about a Messsage, written in a very elegant, intricate, complex, brutally adult way, so you'll feel smarter for reading it.  I guess I feel a little smarter.  But I can't quite bring myself to recommend this to the average reader.  Go for it if you love Charles Stross, China Meiville, and Neal Stephenson.  They're not bad company.

Sep 7, 2011

Teaching and public speaking

I've been telecommuting from my home office for a while now.  Sure, I get out of the house to do social things, but I figure it's time to try something totally new and different for me: Teaching.  I used to be very uncomfortable speaking in front of people, and I still have trouble overcoming my natural urge to blend into the background ... but self-marketing has become necessary in my career.  I want to continue working on fun animation projects with nice clients.  I want to get literary agents and publishers interested in my novels.  To that end, I want to get more comfortable with public speaking, including being on panels, and teaching.

So I will be teaching 3D Animation at the Austin Community College.  I'm really excited about this, and grateful for the opportunity to teach a subject that I feel comfortable in.

To prepare myself for the act of teaching, I've volunteered to teach a class on Writing: Plot Structure, which is free and open to the public, hosted by HourSchool.  If you live in or near Austin, you're welcome to attend, and I'd appreciate your feedback if you show up.  A minimum number of RSVPs are necessary to make the class happen.  You can sign up here.

I'm also volunteering to speak at local schools.  I gave a talk at UT (the University of Texas) a few months ago, and I may speak at a high school later this week.

If you have questions, or would like to invite me to talk about animation, the game industry, or fiction writing, please contact me through my website.