Try Everything (Except Jelly Beans)

Many of Disney’s greatest hits have been musicals, from the early days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the golden age of The Lion King to the modern era of Frozen.

Disney’s latest animated movie, Zootopia, is definitely not a musical—in fact, at one point, its protagonist is even told, “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and your insipid dreams magically come true.” Zootopia does feature one notable song, however: “Try Everything,” a pop number sung by the film’s least necessary character. (Did Disney’s executives assign the film a pop star quota? We may never know.)

“Try Everything,” like “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie, is simplistic but catchy. It doesn’t soar to the heights of Disney’s great musical numbers, but I like it anyway.

The fan-made version above swaps out the thudding beat and pop influences of the original for brisk percussion and a tropical vibe. I’m pretty sure I heard some marimba and bongos in there, and that’s definitely a samba whistle toward the end. (There’s also a bit of electric guitar, because electric guitars make nearly everything better.) This cover of “Try Everything” is uplifting and airy, and I dig it.

Here’s another take on “Try Everything,” this time as a rock song. Spoilers: It’s still really catchy.

In case anyone is inspired by this song actually to try everything, I recommend giving jelly beans a miss. They’re nasty. Try almost everything. Skip the jelly beans.

431. My Creative Heroes

Creative people are fun, quirky, smart, and responsible for most of the entertainment in my life. (The rest of it comes from acting silly in public to make my younger brother uncomfortable.) I have many creative heroes: people I know personally, people on the Internet, and professionals in the media.

Today’s post honors three of my creative heroes, one each from the media of film, video games, and literature. I admire and respect the heck out of these people. If I were the sort of person who cries and gives hugs, I would embrace these heroes of mine and weep tears of joy and gratitude. I’m not, however, so instead I’ll ramble about them, because rambling is what I do.

John Lasseter

[Update: I wrote this post long before the #MeToo movement exposed Mr. Lasseter’s history of sexually harassing coworkers and others. While I admire his creative genius, I hasten to add that success and talent are never acceptable excuses for being a sleazebag.]

I considered naming Hayao Miyazaki one of my creative heroes, but this brilliant Japanese filmmaker is also demanding and grouchy: not qualities I admire in anyone, creative or not. John Lasseter, like Miyazaki, is a legend; unlike Miyazaki, he seems like a nice human being.

John Lasseter

Lasseter’s career is one of the most incredible rags-to-riches stories I know. As a boy, he dreamed of working for Disney as an animator. He achieved his dream—only to be fired after just a few years. His mistake was annoying his superiors by experimenting with a brand-new form of art: computer animation.

Heartbroken, Lasseter drifted to a division of Lucasfilm, which later became an independent company called Pixar Animation Studios. (You may have heard of it.) For a decade, Pixar pioneered computer animation with masterpieces like Toy Story and its sequel, both of which Lasseter directed.

It seems strange to us nowadays, as we enjoy terrific films like Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia, but just ten years ago Disney’s animation studios were stuck in a losing streak. Their films found neither commercial nor critical success, and their fans yearned for the good old days of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Disney, the most successful animation company in history, had sunk to the unimaginable low of mediocrity.

Faced with this crisis, Disney’s newly-appointed CEO, Bob Iger, did the only sensible thing: oversee Disney’s purchase of Pixar, and then put Lasseter and his colleague Ed Catmull in charge of basically everything. After more than twenty years, John Lasseter returned to the studio that had fired him—as its chief creative officer. His employees welcomed him with cheers and applause.

In the following years, Lasseter renamed and restructured Disney’s main animation studio, canceled cash-grab projects and lazy sequels, and oversaw the release of superb films from both Disney and Pixar: all while wearing colorful Hawaiian shirts.

I admire John Lasseter for his creative vision, which blends an appreciation for tradition with a dedication to cutting-edge innovation. Mr. Lasseter emphasizes teamwork, strives for quality in art and storytelling, and seems like a genuinely nice guy. He’s one of my heroes, and a colorful one at that.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Several decades ago, the president of a company on the verge of financial collapse made a desperate plan to salvage unpopular hardware. He tasked a young employee named Shigeru Miyamoto with creating a new game for old arcade units. That game was Donkey Kong, that company was Nintendo, and that employee went on to create Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and many of the greatest video games ever made.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Nintendo is awesome, and Shigeru Miyamoto is the genius behind many of its successes. Many of the turning points in the history of video gaming hinge on Miyamoto’s games. Donkey Kong established the platforming genre. Super Mario Bros. helped save the video game industry after it crashed in the eighties. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time pioneered movement in a virtual 3D space, and the Wii experimented with motion control.

Miyamoto has helped shape the video game industry for nearly four decades, but you wouldn’t guess it to look at him. He’s a mild gentleman who enjoys music and gardening, and walked or biked to work until his company pressured him for his own safety to drive. For a creative visionary, he seems entirely down to earth.

Nowadays, Miyamoto is more of a creative consultant for Nintendo than a game designer. He is notorious for “upending the tea table” during game development, flipping design concepts on their heads. (His suggestions are game-changing, so to speak.) Miyamoto seems like Nintendo’s idea guy, stepping in when a development team needs a boost.

I admire Miyamoto’s design philosophy: he values fun over fancy graphics or technical intricacy. Most of his games are based on his own life experiences, from exploring woods and caves as a child to gardening as an adult. (He even made a game inspired by his attempts to lose weight!) His work is colorful, charming, fun, and friendly. Nintendo is basically the Pixar of the video game industry, and Miyamoto-san, like Pixar’s Mr. Lasseter, is one of my heroes.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course this man is one of my creative heroes. Really, they don’t get any more creative than J.R.R. Tolkien. The man created an entire world—an earth with its own geography, mythology, languages, cultures, genealogies, and thousands of years of history—and he did it in his spare time.

J.R.R. TolkienLong before he published The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was a noted academic renowned for his groundbreaking work in literary criticism. He lectured, graded papers, translated old texts, published books, raised a family, and still found time somehow to create his own vast, private, intricate mythology.

Tolkien was irrepressibly creative. For example, every year his children wrote to Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus—and, incredibly, Father Christmas wrote back. For twenty-two years, Tolkien played the role of Father Christmas to amuse his kids: writing and illustrating stories about his misadventures at the North Pole. These letters were published as a children’s book after Tolkien’s death; I’ve read them, and and they’re delightful. Even in his little pet projects, Tolkien’s creativity and cleverness were astounding.

Of course, Tolkien’s greatest project of all was Middle-earth and its stories, the most famous of which is The Lord of the Rings. The sheer size and intricacy of Tolkien’s world is astounding; by some estimates, it’s the largest and most complex ever created by a single person in all of human history. Tolkien’s influence on literature and pop culture is literally incalculable.

In his vast mythologies and in his little stories for children, at work and at home, J.R.R. Tolkien was incredibly creative, and he’s one of my heroes.

Whew! That was a long post. What can I say? Creative people inspire me!

Who are your creative heroes? Let us know in the comments!

428. An Open Letter to Hollywood 2: The Sequel

Dear Hollywood Executives,

I know you’re all very busy, so I’ll try to keep this short. It’s been a while since my last letter, which I assume you all read, and another one is due. Consider it a sequel.

You’ve made a few small improvements since my last letter. For example, you actually made a Deadpool movie. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good. (I’ve also heard that it’s extremely vulgar, but Deadpool’s gotta Deadpool, I guess.) So many superhero movies are all doom and gloom, because, y’know, heaven forbid comic-book stories be fun for anybody. Irreverent takes on the genre like Deadpool and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy are a welcome change. It’s okay for superhero movies not to take themselves so seriously. We don’t mind, honest!

Speaking of superhero movies, can we get a bit more diversity? Please? Take the Avengers, otherwise known as the League of White Guys. (They have only one female member: a token femme fatale with no superpowers.) I don’t read Marvel comics, but I know they feature more than white dudes. I don’t have anything against white dudes—I am one, as a matter of fact—but flooding superhero movies with them is unfair, uncool, and frankly kinda boring.

To be fair, I must congratulate you on giving Black Panther, the no-nonsense African superhero, a part in the new Captain America movie, and working toward giving him his own film in a couple of years. For a change, the black guy won’t be just a sidekick. He’ll be the hero.

Black PantherIt will be nice, after more than a dozen Marvel movies, finally to have one whose hero isn’t a white American (or quasi-British) male. It’s a step in the right direction. Keep stepping, ladies and gentlemen. Keep stepping.

I’ve already written about video game movies and portrayals of Christians in secular media, so I won’t repeat myself here. Just go read those blog posts. I will, however, emphatically repeat my appeal for a Metal Gear Solid movie. It should happen. It needs to happen. Please, please, please, make it happen. I will give you anything to make a Metal Gear Solid movie, unto half my kingdom. (I won’t actually give you anything for making the movie, but I will buy tickets to see it.)

Look, I’ve even done some of the casting for you.

Metal Gear Solid movie Now you just need to make the movie. Please do.

As long as we’re discussing film adaptations: Why don’t you adapt more old books? As you struggle to come up with ideas, consider the thousands of terrific stories available at your local library. I once made a list of books that would make great films, and you’ve made only one of them (Ender’s Game) with a second (Ben-Hur) on its way. Seriously, I want a film version of The Man Who Was Thursday almost as much as I want that Metal Gear Solid movie.

Incidentally, I hear Martin Scorsese is working on an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence: a brooding and powerful novel about the silence of God.

SilenceIt’s exactly the sort of obscure, slow-paced book you Hollywood execs won’t touch with a ten-foot boom pole. Mr. Scorsese thinks differently. Learn from Mr. Scorsese, Hollywood.

Moving on from a good director to some really bad ones: Why are you still letting Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan make movies? Why?! Just stop. Stop. Staaahhhp.

On a brighter note, Disney and Pixar have been making some outstanding movies lately. I’m glad to see that animation is not merely surviving on the Hollywood scene, but evolving and thriving. As long as you have Disney and Pixar, Hollywood, I think you’ll be all right.

I could go on, but that’s probably enough for one letter. I hope it doesn’t seem too harsh or demanding. For all of my grumbling, I really appreciate good movies, and I suppose I have you Hollywood people to thank for them. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen, for making my life a little brighter, and occasionally a little more explode-y.



P.S. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could just put Disney’s John Lasseter in charge of everything? No? Well, there was no harm in asking.

In Which a Cartoon Bunny Is Adorable

As you may have noticed, I recently saw Disney’s Zootopia. It was fantastic. In the video above, Byron Howard, a director of Zootopia, demonstrates how to draw Judy Hopps, the film’s bunny protagonist.

You apparently start with an S for snake—excuse me, I mean a shape like a gumdrop. Once you have sketched that gumdrop shape, you draw the rest of the bunny’s face. Simple, no?

In this regard, drawing a cartoon bunny follows pretty much the same process as for drawing an owl:

How to draw an owlIn seriousness, the video gives excellent step-by-step instructions for drawing Disney’s most adorable character yet. It also gives a shout out to the great Glen Keane, who animated some of Disney’s most memorable characters.

My younger brother, who is quite an artist, has taken to drawing pictures on little pieces of notebook paper and leaving them for me on my desk. He decided to sketch Judy Hopps after watching this video. That picture is now tucked into my lampshade with some of his other sketches. At this very moment, backlit by my lamp, Judy Hopps beams down at me with bright benevolence, threatening to stop my heart with her staggering cuteness.

Heck, I shouldn’t have said that. It was insensitive, and I apologize.

426. I Want to Make You Feel

I recently announced my decision to revive the Lance Eliot saga, my greatest and most personal writing project. Today I will tell you why I made that big decision, but there is something else, something important, I must discuss first.

Excuse me, Sir or Madam, but have you heard the good word about Disney’s Zootopia?

Zootopia movie poster

Not far from my home in the little town of Berne there stands a cozy cinema called the Ritz Theatre. (I discovered it when I ventured forth to see The Lego Movie a couple of years ago.) The Ritz has two theater rooms, one of which is fairly small, and an old-timey lobby with a big plaster model of an Oscar trophy. I love the Ritz Theatre. It wraps the sound and fury of Hollywood movies in the charm of a friendly small business.

My younger brother and I recently made a pilgrimage to the Ritz Theatre to see Zootopia, Disney’s latest animated movie. It was fantastic. However, as much as I would love to spend this blog post explaining why the movie is fantastic, that’s not really the point. (Seriously, though, go watch Zootopia.)

The point is that Zootopia made me feel things. It evoked far deeper feelings of catharsis and happiness than any kids’ movie has any right to do. I am not an emotional person. I am, despite my sense of humor and typically sunny disposition, pragmatic and logical.

Thus, when the feels hit me, they hit me hard.


I just can’t take the feels, man.

Zootopia is far from the first story to make me make me feel things. Heck, nearly every new animated Disney film since Bolt back in 2008 has left an emotional impression. For some reason, while movies for adults appeal to my intellect, movies for kids are the ones that appeal to my feelings. (Disney, Pixar, and Studio Ghibli, I’m looking right at you.)

I like positive feelings. Most people do. I’m not often emotionally overwhelmed by a story, but when I am, it’s an amazing experience. It’s a fleeting encounter with the power of storytelling: as J.R.R. Tolkien suggested, “a far-off gleam or echo” of a happy ending to our own story, which is being told by the greatest Storyteller of all.

Speaking of Tolkien, I admit few stories have made me feel as much as The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s masterpiece, especially the last chapters of its final book, The Return of the King, warms even my impassive old heart.

I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings since 2009 or so, and much of it had faded from my memory, but something happened last year to change that.

A few days after Christmas, my brother and I visited a family friend. I’ll call him Socrates here. (In real life, I call him Barabbas. It’s a fun story.) After welcoming us into his home, Socrates made snacks and put on the film adaptation of The Return of the King. It had been almost as long since I had seen the film as it had since I had read the book!

Return of the King movie poster

Something happened that night. The movie was as good as I remembered, but beyond that, something woke up inside me. I felt an overwhelming peace and happiness: the nostalgia of fond memories in harmony with the catharsis of seeing beloved characters reach a happy ending. It was then I realized something: I knew I once wanted to write a story of my own, but I had forgotten why.

This was why.

That night reminded me of why I decided to write stories in the first place: I wanted to feel, and I wanted to make other people feel, too. Stories like Zootopia and The Return of the King gave me moments of cathartic happiness, peace, and comfort. I wanted to give someone else those moments.

I still do.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. That’s my excuse for picking up the Lance Eliot saga once this blog bites the dust. I want to make you feel.

Blame Tolkien and Zootopia.

Technology Is Confusing

I like to think I know a thing or two about technology. As a millennial, I consider myself competently tech-savvy, able to function in today’s high-tech world.

…Nah, whom am I kidding? I can’t even hook up my brother’s Wii U without his guidance. Why doesn’t it use the same AV cable setup as other devices? How do I make it connect to the Internet? Why are there so many downloads?! Back in my day, I just blew the dust out of the game cartridge, slammed it into the Super Nintendo, and turned it on.

I’ve become a relic of a bygone age, and I’m only in my twenties. I hate to think of how technologically illiterate I’ll be in fifty years. Maybe, at that point, I’ll have robots to hook up my electronics for me. We’ll see.

TMTF’s Top Ten Disney Villains

All right, guys. We all knew this was coming. It was only a matter of time.

I like villains—from a safe distance, of course. Bad guys are often so much more interesting than good ones. Whether misguided, damaged, or simply evil, a striking or well-developed villain is often the best part of a story. Walt Disney Animation Studios understands this. In its seventy-something years of filmmaking, it has created an entire pantheon of memorable bad guys.

Prepare yourself for the best of the baddies, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Disney Villains!

Be ye warned: Here there be minor spoilers.

10. Cruella de Vil (One Hundred and One Dalmations)

Cruella de VilleNot every villain needs to be an all-powerful menace. Cruella de Vil is merely a bad person: shallow, selfish, cruel, unbalanced, and a little sociopathic. I would call her a crazy cat lady, but she’s more of a dog person—but only if “dog person” means “person who wants to kill puppies and turn their skins into coats.” Her visual design is incredible, from the bulky furs dangling from her skeletal body to the sneer on her blood-red lips. Cruella de Vil is a maniac, and a refreshingly low-key change from the large-scale evil of other Disney villains.

9. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

MaleficentMaleficent isn’t a complex villain, or even a particularly interesting one, but she gets bonus points for making an impression. She may be the most recognizable baddie in the Disney pantheon. Maleficent perfects the gaunt-and-sinister-old-lady character type. By comparison, the queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the stepmother from Cinderella seem like mere prototypes. Maleficent also turns into a dragon, which is pretty rad.

8. Mother Gothel (Tangled)

Mother GothelI’m going to be lazy and let another blogger explain this one: “What makes Mother Gothel terrifying is the fact that Rapunzel loved her. That makes Mother Gothel more than a villain in the traditional hey-I’m-going-to-kill-you way. It makes her a liar, deceiver, and traitor, violating one of the deepest bonds we can think of (mother-daughter).” (As long as I’m stealing ideas from Amy Green, you should go read her old two-part post on Disney villains.) Mother Gothel isn’t as powerful as other villains on this list, but she’s far more relatable—and that scares me more.

7. Monstro (Pinocchio)


Monstro is not a well-developed character—or any kind of character, for that matter. Monstro is a whale. He has no dialogue, and his only apparent motivation is rage. Like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings or Cthulhu in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Monstro is not so much a character as a force of evil. Monstro is a monster, true to his name, in the truest sense of the word: inscrutable, elemental, destructive, powerful, incomprehensible, angry, and terrifying.

6. Shere Khan (The Jungle Book)

Shere Khan

Shere Khan is an implacable predator. He isn’t exactly evil, but lives according to his nature, and his nature is to kill. Here is another example of superb visual design creating a memorable character: his massive jaw and tiny yellow eyes give him a predatory look, and his smooth, cat-like movements convey power and confidence. The unsettling way Shere Khan swings from politeness to savagery reminds me of Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs. Shere Khan isn’t out to conquer the world. He just wants to kill, and he’s creepily nice about it.

5. Scar (The Lion King)

ScarScar is delightful and charming, insofar as a treacherous tyrant can be either of those things. As a king’s younger brother, he resents his young nephew for taking away his claim to the throne. (It’s all very Shakespearean, which is appropriate since The Lion King is based loosely on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Scar reminds me more of Richard III, though.) I can think of a lot of words to describe Scar: sarcastic, scheming, ruthless, resentful, and vicious, among others. He has a lot in common with other Disney villains, but his underhanded charm sets him apart.

4. Hades (Hercules)

HadesThis smooth-talking scoundrel gives the impression of a shady used car salesman. His friendly manner can’t hide his short temper and ill intent. Did I mention that Hades is the god of the dead? He’s the god of the dead. His character in the film is never quite as funny as I remember, yet I absolutely adore the combination of a sleazy personality with the almighty power of a mythical god. Villains tend to be serious, sometimes to the point of tedium or predictability. Hades joins baddies like the Joker and Kefka Palazzo as a really bad guy with a really good sense of humor.

3. Judge Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

Judge FrolloTo this day, I can hardly believe Disney allowed The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be made. It’s an excellent film, but definitely doesn’t fit Disney’s kid-friendly image. Take Claude Frollo. This judge plans a genocidal crusade to murder the gypsies of Paris: a heartless ethnic cleansing in the name of religion. Judge Frollo clings to hypocritical self-righteousness, yet desperately fears that his lust for a gypsy woman will damn him to an eternity in hell. Yeah. Heavy stuff. Just listen to his villain song, “Hellfire.” Most Disney baddies get a villain song, but Frollo’s is the only one about sexual desire and everlasting damnation. Judge Frollo is a complex, tormented man, and a haunting antagonist for one of Disney’s most daring films.

2. Yzma (The Emperor’s New Groove)

YzmaNot every villain has to be dark and brooding. If you haven’t already seen The Emperor’s New Groove, stop reading this blog post and don’t come back until you have. Yzma is flipping hilarious. This resentful old woman, whom other characters describe as “scary beyond all reason,” swings madly from manic cheerfulness to furious grumpiness. When she finally loses patience with her laid-back, self-centered emperor, she plans his assassination… only for the plan to go awry and the emperor to end up transformed into a llama. Throughout the film, Yzma and her adorkable henchman Kronk try (unsuccessfully) to track down and kill the emperor before he can reclaim his throne. Hilarity ensues, proving that a villain doesn’t have to be scary to be awesome.

1. Rourke (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)

Commander RourkeI doubt anyone saw this one coming. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was released in the dark age between the Disney Renaissance in the nineties and the so-called Disney Revival of the past six or seven years. Most of Disney’s films from the early aughts have faded from memory. In the case of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it’s a shame: I consider this steampunk adventure an underappreciated gem. Its villain, Rourke, is the kind of pragmatic, no-nonsense killer I would never have expected from Disney. Rourke, the leader of an expedition to discover Atlantis, reveals himself to be a mercenary—or to use his preferred term, an “adventure capitalist.” He plans to plunder a magical artifact from Atlantis, killing all of its inhabitants in the process. Rourke stands out for his dry sense of humor, absolute self-interest, and complete disregard for human life. Did I mention the scene in which he snaps and tries to murder the protagonist with an axe? Rourke is a fantastic villain, and I think Disney has none better.

Who are your favorite Disney villains? Let us know in the comments!

This post was originally published on October 16, 2015. TMTF shall return with new content on February 22, 2016!

Mickey Mouse in Mexico

I never did trust piñatas. After so many generations of being beaten by children with sticks, it was only a matter of time before they struck back.

Incidentally, I’m glad Disney is still making Mickey Mouse cartoons. It’s nice to see that this juggernaut of mass media, which now owns everything from Marvel Comics to Star Wars, hasn’t forgotten the little mouse that started it all.

Comic Book Sound Effects

BTYANG!Comic book sound effects are weird.

I didn’t read comics until the past few years. Oh, I read a few graphic novels—mostly critically-acclaimed stuff like Maus and Scott Pilgrim—and a couple of comic series, but nothing particularly comic-booky: no superheroes, noir mysteries, or slice-of-life romances.

Then, quite a number of months ago, a kindly relative began sending me and my younger brother books and comics. These literary care packages contained works of interest he had picked up at comics events and used bookstores. His latest gift was a little stack of free comics he had gleaned from a Halloween comics festival.

It was a fascinating collection. Among others, there was an old-timey Spiderman comic, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby; the first issue of a famous Batman series, which later influenced Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy; a couple of contemporary Marvel superhero comics; and some licensed stuff based on television and video games. With its blend of classics, current issues, and promotional fluff, that stack of comics was like a cross section of the comic book industry.

Anyhowz, one of the things that stood out to me about those comics was the weird sound effects. I knew odd sounds were a thing in comics, but… dang. Rather—if I may spell the word like a sound effect in a comic book—DHAAANG!

Out of curiosity, I googled “weird comic book sound effects,” and yep, there sure are some weird ones. Consider “YYAABASTA,” which sounds exactly like Spanish for “That’s enough!”


The weirdest sound effects of all, however, came not from the Internet, but from one of the comics my relative sent me. It was a Donald Duck comic. The sounds were “SPUZZLE,” which is the sound of whipped cream sprayed from a can, and “SPLOMP,” which is the sound of twelve tons of chocolate cremes hitting a street from a height of roughly twenty or thirty feet.

…Yeah, don’t ask.

399. Review Roundup: Stupidly Long Edition

In the past few months, I finished some stupidly long books, films, and video games. Some are truly lengthy; others feel overlong due to tedium or slow pacing. A few are well worth their length. The rest overstay their welcome.

In this Review Roundup, I’ll take a quick look at Les MisérablesMetal Gear Solid 4The Once and Future KingSecret of Mana, Rise of the Guardians, and The Godfather Parts I and II.

I’ll try to keep this short. Spoilers: I’ll probably fail.

Les Misérables

Lez Miz coverI read the abridged Les Misérables a few years ago. It was fantastic. Set in nineteenth-century France, this epic story follows an escaped convict named Jean Valjean. His journey from grief to grace to redemption spans decades, interwoven with tales of war, crime, revolution, and romance. The abridged Les Misérables is one of the finest novels I have ever read.

The complete, unabridged Les Misérables is a badly-paced novel burdened with boring details and jumbled together with a bunch of essays. The story moves with all the grace of a drunken hippo with a blindfold and only three legs.

As a writer, I usually respect an artist’s original vision. Not this time. In this case, I think the artist’s original vision is deeply flawed. The book has too much detail and a number of subplots that go nowhere, but those aren’t its worst faults. At frequent intervals, the novel is interrupted by rambling essays about minor details. How can readers stay invested in the tale of Jean Valjean when it’s constantly derailed by the author’s digressions on street lingo or the Battle of Waterloo?

For example, at the climax of the novel, a band of freedom fighters makes a heroic last stand against the army in Paris as Jean Valjean flees through the sewers. In the next chapter, the author kills the story’s momentum with an essay describing how much money the city of Paris loses by dumping its sewer waste in the river instead of converting it to manure. Never mind Jean Valjean’s sewer escape! Never mind the martyrs of the revolution! All that must wait until the author finishes ranting about sewers several chapters later.

If the author really felt his opinions were so important, he should have published them separately. Les Misérables was written as a serial, but when it was finally published as a complete work, his digressions could have been included as appendices at the back of the book.

Read Les Misérables—the abridged one. For heaven’s sake, don’t waste your time on the unabridged version.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

MGS4 coverMetal Gear Solid 4 is a video game that thinks it’s an action movie.

In the, um, distant future of 2014, war has changed. A group called the Patriots has made war a business. Meaningless battles are fought all over the world by privately-owned mercenary companies, fueling a worldwide war economy. Using technology, economics, and the media—and nanomachines, of course—the Patriots control everything.

War has changed, and so has Solid Snake. This legendary soldier has aged prematurely due to a terminal genetic condition. Snake has become, in his thirties or forties, an old man with less than a year to live. When his former commanding officer asks him to undertake one last mission, Snake sets out to bring down the Patriots and end the cycle of war before the whole world burns. After all, what does he have to lose?

In the past couple of years, I’ve come to love the Metal Gear Solid games. I keep comparing them to the films of Quentin Tarantino. Packed with dialogue and populated by larger-than-life characters, they are violent, campy, stylish, contemplative, and frequently ridiculous.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is characteristically Metal Gear Solid-ish, and it does a superb job of pulling everything together. The games that preceded it are radically different in tone and story. Metal Gear Solid is a military thriller with shades of Tom Clancy’s novels and superhero comics. (It would make a great movie.) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty starts as an action game and spirals off into postmodern intrigue. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a James Bond-style adventure set in the sixties. MGS4 somehow ties together plot threads from previous games, uniting them in a triumphant (and surprisingly cohesive) conclusion to Solid Snake’s story.

The gameplay and level design of MGS4 are polished for a fairly smooth experience. For the first time in the series, Snake actually pilots one of the eponymous Metal Gears in an exhilarating clash of giant robots. A couple of the other boss fights are brilliantly designed. Tracking and shadowing targets adds a little variety to the usual shooting and sneaking.

Rex Vs. Ray

After three games of sneaking around in the shadows, a giant robot fight was long overdue.

If the game has a problem, it’s the cutscenes—scripted scenes that take away control from the player. These are superbly produced, but also really long. I mean really, really long. I spent probably a quarter of my time with the game watching instead of playing. MGS4 is a movie superimposed on a video game.

I also have a serious problem with the game’s portrayal of women. The Metal Gear Solid series has its share of good-looking ladies, but the babes of MGS4 aren’t sexy spies or cute scientists—they are freaking PTSD victims. Several of the game’s bosses are traumatized women trapped in armored suits and forced back onto the battlefield. When their powered armors are destroyed, these ladies crawl out in skintight bodysuits as the camera ogles their curves. I think it’s supposed to be sexy in a PG-13 kind of way, but it comes off as creepy and insensitive. There are just a few of these scenes, but yeesh.

It had a few disappointments, yet I really enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The game is a must for fans of the series. For new players, I recommend Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as a better introduction.

The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King coverThe Once and Future King is a poignant tale of failure. Based on Arthurian legends, the novel follows King Arthur from his childhood studies under Merlin to his final regrets as an old man. Woven into Arthur’s story is the tale of Lancelot, Arthur’s greatest knight, who follows his own ambitions and makes his own mistakes.

It’s quite a long novel, but unlike Les Misérables, every page is worthwhile. It reinterprets the Arthurian legends, setting them centuries later and giving their characters much greater complexity. Arthur, for example, no longer establishes his Round Table (an order of knights governed by chivalry) for the sake of honor or conquest. The Round Table is reimagined as a redirection of violence from selfish to noble ends. Arthur is more than a king. He is an inventor of civilization.

At first, the novel is lighthearted and often hilarious. In fact, the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone is based on the early chapters of The Once and Future King. The difference is that in the film, Arthur’s coronation is a happy ending, whereas in the book, it’s only the beginning of his struggles. The tone goes from funny to tragic as Arthur grows from a boy to a man.

The Once and Future King is easily the finest book I’ve read so far this year, and the definitive retelling of King Arthur’s story for our age. I highly recommend it.

Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana coverI had wanted to play this game for years. Released around the same time as RPG classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, for the same system and by the same company, Secret of Mana is widely hailed as a masterpiece of the SNES era.

It’s kind of terrible.

Yeah, it looks nice. Don't be fooled.

Yeah, it looks nice. Don’t be fooled.

There are good things about it. The battle system is robust, engaging, and way ahead of its time. Secret of Mana looks great, with bright colors and attractive old-timey graphics. Its menus are neat. I can understand why the game was so well received in its day. However, its weaknesses greatly outnumber its strengths. The music is forgettable, the story is an undeveloped stream of clichés, the game design is frequently obtuse, and the game settles into a rhythm of dull repetition that lasts way too long.

If you’re looking for an RPG classic, for heaven’s sake play Chrono Trigger and leave Secret of Mana in the nineties where it belongs.

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians posterI had low expectations for Rise of the Guardians, but it wasn’t bad.

The film recasts Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and other figures of childhood lore as Guardians: members of a league that protects the happiness of children. When the Boogeyman tries to darken the world with nightmares, the Guardians recruit an amnesiac Jack Frost to restore the belief and hope of kids everywhere.

Despite its generic title, Rise of the Guardians is a colorful, well-paced fairy-tale film. (Unlike the other media in this Review Roundup, it doesn’t feel particularly long.) The Guardians are mostly likable; I particularly enjoyed Santa Claus as a gruff Russian and the Sandman as a silent protagonist. The villain is sinister and well-developed. By far the weakest link is Jack Frost, whose angst, amnesia, bland narration, and boy-band looks hit all the wrong notes.

It isn’t a classic, but Rise of the Guardians is all right.

The Godfather Parts I and II

The Godfather covers

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are allegedly two of the greatest films ever made. I decided I should see them. It was, as the Godfather himself might have put it, a recommendation I could not refuse.

The first Godfather film tells the story of the Corleone family, an Italian-American crime syndicate led by the eponymous godfather, Vito, and later by his son Michael. The second movie follows Michael as he consolidates power, and flashes back to Vito’s arrival in the United States and rise to power as a criminal kingpin.

Oh, and the first one consists largely of Marlon Brando making this face:

Marlon Brando scowling

Seriously. This is his default expression.

The Godfather movies are fairly old, and a lot longer and slower than contemporary films. They move at the leisurely pace of novels. (If it were made today, The Godfather would probably be a television miniseries, not a series of films.) The meticulous pacing allows for character development and plenty of subplots, but definitely makes watching the films a chore.

The Godfather movies boast great acting and complex characters. Vito is not just a literal godfather to his godson, but a sort of father-figure to his community. His life of crime is governed by strict rules of honor and loyalty. Michael, at first an innocent young man, hardens into a ruthless mob boss who abandons his father’s principles. In telling their stories, the films touch upon themes such as revenge, responsibility, betrayal, tradition, religion, corruption, and family.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II reward patient viewers with the epic story of a family’s descent into darkness. If you’re looking for something easy to watch, however, you had better look elsewhere.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!