Fall 2020 – Week 13 in Review

This week-numbering system doesn’t really make any sense at this point, huh? Initially, they were supposed to match the “weeks” of each anime season, though of course that itself is a vague concept, considering the unique release schedules of various shows. But then it lost what little sense it made after I stopped centering it around seasonal anime, and now we’re not even in a real “anime week,” since shows don’t generally come out in the last week of the year. But it’d be even weirder to switch to a system that just numbers all the weeks of the year, right? I dunno, something to think about.

Anyway! Ambiguous titling aside, I did indeed consume some media this week, along with putting together my Top Anime of 2020 post. That’s coming on Friday, but for now, let’s break down some films and games in 2020’s very last Week in Review!

First up, my house watched Big Hero 6, a generally alright Disney superhero film from 2014. Centered on a young engineering genius named Hiro, the film is largely constructed as an exploration of grief, and succeeds well enough in both his story, and its general action beats. That said, I never felt particularly emotionally grabbed by the film, and figuring out why that’s the case ended up being the most interesting thing about it for me.

My first, immediate reaction to the film was “I wish characters aside from Hiro were allowed to have personalities.” Hiro’s story of loss felt pretty straightforward, so I’d have liked more fleshing out of the additional cast, but they were all more of a quirk or a gag than a person – “tough girl,” “nervous big guy,” etcetera. Compared to similar quasi-ensemble superhero films like Into the Spiderverse or The Incredibles, this felt like a serious weakness of the film – but then I considered who each of these films are intended for.

Into the Spiderverse is young adult fiction, and The Incredibles is a family film with material for both kids and parents. In contrast, Big Hero 6 is clearly aimed at the “middle grade” audience, of kids between maybe eight and twelve years of age. To this audience, Hiro’s tale of grief is the story, and attempting to make them empathize with the distant, unfamiliar emotions of his adult and young adult companions would only distance them from the parts of the film they can relate to. Just like how adults in anime for teens often have pretty basic personalities, so do Big Hero 6’s secondary cast lack much distinction, because that’s not what this story is about. And similarly, the film’s worldbuilding felt a lot like an introduction to superheroes and anime, rather than an informed expansion on those concepts, because that’s seemingly what it’s intended to be. I ultimately think Big Hero 6 probably could have found ways to center its main audience that didn’t also shut out supplementary audiences, but understand why it makes the choices it does.

We also checked out a recent zombie film, Blood Quantum, which managed the neat trick of being both a satisfyingly crunchy zombie experience, and also a pointed reflection on modern Native American identity. Set on the Red Crow Indian Reservation, the film’s title refers to United States’ laws that were used to define Native American identity by their “blood ancestry.” Both the film’s fantasy and personal narratives spring from this concept, as the reservation’s natives realize they’re the only ones immune to the zombie virus, while the local sheriff’s sons end up divided by the friction of their differing mothers.

There’s a lot to like about Blood Quantum – the film’s cinematography is excellent, it makes clever structural use of its zombie premise, and its smoldering social commentary always feels personal and painful, rather than didactic. I didn’t feel it ended with as much energy as it began, and there were a couple stiff performances, but it still makes for a sturdy and unusually thoughtful genre experience, full of conversations that demanded you recognize the histories trailing off behind its heroes. Pretty good for a zombie flick!

Finally, I also checked out Soul, Pixar’s just-released film. Directed by Pete Docter, the film feels a bit like a remix of two of his previous efforts: all the melancholy purpose-of-life musing of Up, along with the inventive reimagining of personality and identity that characterized Inside Out. Up and Inside Out are the best films Pixar produced in the last decade by a significant margin, and Soul stands proudly alongside them; it’s clear at this point that though their CG animation is always impressive, when Pixar want to make Great Art, they put Docter at the helm.

Centered on a perpetually aspiring jazz pianist named Joe Gardner, Soul picks up just as he gets his big break, and then immediately falls into an open manhole. Waking up on the ramp to the “Great Beyond,” Joe is determined to return to earth and take his shot, and ultimately teams up with an unborn soul who doesn’t see the point of living.

The film is a love letter to the transformative power of music, but also a sprawling yet specific reflection on life in general, and the ways our perception of “life’s purpose” can get in the way of actually living it (I told you it had strong Up vibes). Also, in spite of the reasonable prerelease concerns that Soul would be another instance of animation hiding black characters behind cartoon animals, the film absolutely embraces the blackness of its characters – most of it takes place on earth, and revels in the unique culture of Joe’s New York neighborhoods. Also also, though the marvelous script tends to steal the show, Soul is equally impressive visually, evocatively illustrating the idea of an artistic flow state, or of beings who exist outside our comprehension. Ambitious, creative, poignant, insightful, and beautiful – Soul demonstrates Pixar at their best, and reaffirms Docter as one of the great modern directors.

As for games, I recently picked up the recent Metroidvania-style sidescroller, Blasphemous. Having realized I will probably like basically any game you’d describe as a roguelike, Soulslike, or Metroidvania, Blasphemous seemed right up my alley, and I was happy to be proven right. Set in a grim, penitence-rich, gothic-slash-catholic fantasy world, Blasphemous plays out pretty much exactly like Hollow Knight or whatnot, as you chart out new areas, gain new powers, and square off with grotesque bosses.

It’s frankly hard to avoid the Hollow Knight comparisons, and Blasphemous is a decent bit worse than that game in most respects – its movement isn’t quite as tight, its worldbuilding and narrative less compelling, its quests and upgrades a little clumsily distributed. That said, I think Hollow Knight is quite possibly the best game created in the last ten years, so calling a game “Hollow Knight but less” is actually pretty serious praise – and considering I’d happily play basically any amount of Hollow Knight content, I was delighted to play through Blasphemous’ less refined variation on the refrain. If you like games like Castlevania or Hollow Knight or Salt & Sanctuary, you’ll probably enjoy Blasphemous – and if you know of other great games in this field, what are you waiting for!? Spill the goods, what should I be playing!?!

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