I took my kids Sam (7) and Kit (5) to see The Clone Wars. I’ve been reading so much invective directed against this movie, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Online voices are torn: some people seem to hate it, some people seem to merely dislike it, some people feel it is a monstrous act of betrayal. My favorite, a hysterical non-review by “Moriarty” at Ain’t-It-Cool-News, is so full of hurt and anger that it goes so far as to insist that the reviewer will never write about Star Wars ever again — You hear him? Never! Take that, George Lucas! Moriarty shuts the Iron Door.
I went in fully braced for an atrocity, a soul-scorching, childish, grating, dead-end cinematic nightmare.
Sorry haters — it’s actually not bad. It’s actually pretty good.
Well, I think neither is true. The movies — the six movies — are what they are. The Clone Wars isn’t pretending to be Episode II & 1/2, it’s its own thing. It makes that clear right off the bat: the music is different, the introduction is spoken instead of written, and the characters have been dramatically re-designed. This is all intentional, and the result, while less grand, less “important,” is more colloquial and human-scaled. (I’m a little baffled by the fans who think the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars shorts are somehow “better” than Episodes I-III — they strike me as very much Genndy Tartakovsky shorts — jaw-dropping fights, no plot, and The Clone Wars kicks their ass around the block.)
The older fans think that Episodes I-III are bad enough, but The Clone Wars is just gratuitous salt in the wound. Well, I don’t know how to break it to those folks, but Sam has seen all six movies many times, and his favorite is Revenge of the Sith, followed by Attack of the Clones, followed by followed by Return of the Jedi. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back don’t even make the list. Sam talks about Anakin Skywalker all the time, the battle on Mustafar and the slaughter of the Sandpeople and the fight in the droid factory and the arena on Geonosis. He reads Clone Wars Adventures and counts the animated shorts as canon. That is Star Wars to my 7-year-old, and The Clone Wars was an absolute feast for him, all Anakin and droid battles and crashing spaceships and well-staged, bloodless carnage. He watched The Clone Wars with a look on his face like he was worried that he was never going to remember all the cool stuff he was seeing. Both he and Kit loved the battle droids and their charming stupidity, they both loved Stinky the Hutt and felt genuine concern for his health. (Sam even checked with me afterwards to make sure if he had an accurate understanding of the “ticking clock” concept: he said “When Anakin had the Huttlet, and it was getting sicker and sicker, didn’t that make it more dramatic, because you didn’t know if they were going to make it back to Tatooine in time to save him?”) They’re too young to get the joke of a Hutt who sounds like Truman Capote (both of them thought Ziro the Hutt was a female, but they cheerfully went along with it when they found out he was not). I’ve read reviews by people disgusted by the idea of a stereotypical gay Hutt, or disgusted at the idea of a stereotypical black Hutt, or a stereotypical “Mammy” Hutt, all of which only proves to me that the joke went over these folks’ heads.
And both my kids love Asoka, the girl Jedi who acts as Anakin’s protege and foil. And you know what? I love her too — she’s a great character, the teenage girl who seems to be the only person in the galaxy who doesn’t seem that impressed with Anakin Skywalker. She gets a lot of screen time, she’s a girl of action, she’s smart and funny and she doesn’t take shit from anyone, much less Anakin. (Okay, she’s stuck holding the baby for a stretch, but credit where credit is due — she’s a huge improvement over the whining, helpless Padme of Sith.)
I’m also really impressed with the look of the thing. Sure, it looks cheap — we’re not talking about Wall-E here — we’re not even talking about Kung-Fu Panda, but the animators have taken the limitations of their budget and turned it into an asset. They do exactly what animators on a budget should do, they lean into their limitations, they make the characters look like they’ve been carved out of wood and then painted with some kind of sticky, quick-drying paint, which makes them both strongly stylized and minutely detailed. Take, for example, the lipstick on Asajj Ventress — she’s got these cruel black lips, but in close-ups we can actually see that her lipstick isn’t applied evenly: it gets caught in the creases of her mouth and, here and there, doesn’t actually make it out to the edges of her lips. Similarly, Asoka’s face paint looks like it’s been applied in layers over a period of time — she’s got streaks and splotches here and there, and in other places her salmon-colored skin shows through.
If there is a complaint to be made, it’s that, for a feature film, there’s a lot of plot but nothing of consequence. Nobody important dies, there are no dramatic reveals or reversals, we don’t find out that Anakin is really a woman or that his father is really a B’omarr Monk. Essentially, it’s a lot of busywork, a bunch of “plot,” at the end of which everyone goes back to doing what they were doing when the movie started. And, as the movie is mostly plot, let me hasten to add that the plot is well-executed, well-paced, and fun to watch.
What The Clone Wars resembles is a pilot for a TV show, which it is, which is bad news for your feature-film dollar. But what it also resembles is my son’s home-made Star Wars movies, where he lines up the characters and then just lets them have at each other, with titanic battles and shifting alliances and dramatic duels and last-minute rescues and jaws-of-defeat victories. The older fans are outraged that Star Wars keeps getting diminished, but to my eyes The Clone Wars really is a new beginning, a redefinition for a different medium.
Booie, the littlest and, frankly, weediest of our latest mantis army, died quietly in the night a few days ago. In accordance with mantis tradition, his body was devoured by crickets.
In what’s becoming an Alcott family tradition, the death of the weakest mantis is a signal that the others’ days are numbered, and the survivors should be released into the wild, where they might mate and create another mantis army to menace the insects of tomorrow. The liberation ceremony for Ceiling and Snacks was held this morning on our front porch.
Pick me up! Pick me up! shouts Ceiling from the depths of the carrier she shares with Giant Black African Millipede.
Snacks, out in the open air, taking his first look at the big, wide world, where, theoretically anyway, there are many insects for him to devour.
Meanwhile Ceiling, getting a whiff of the liberty that is the divine right of all mantids, tries to climb the sheer plexiglass walls of her enclosure.
“What is this strange thing I’m perched upon?” asks Snacks — his first encounter with Nature. Shortly after this photo was taken, Kit (5) asked if she could try to pick him up one last time, or “do you think he’s wild already?”
Out of her enclosure and a little spooked by the wide open spaces, Ceiling goes into a defensive “put up your dukes” pose. Note the super-aggressive “scorpion tail.”
The crickets did not miss out — predator and prey each gained their freedom on this day.
Ceiling, still asking for trouble, crouches on Sam’s hand and, like Sean Penn, dares the photographer to approach — for a fist full of knuckles.
Once on a leaf, Ceiling visibly relaxes. “I could get used to this,” says the enormous, voracious, meat-eating predator. Crickets of Santa Monica. YOU ARE DOOMED.
Dad took Sam (7) and Kit (5) to see Space Chimps. In terms of artistic achievement, Dad found the movie placed a little south of Kagemusha, but acknowledges that it is most likely not intended for an audience of cranky, middle-aged screenwriters. However, the movie did get one genuine laugh out of him, and if you were one of the handful of people in the movie theater with us, you might have witnessed this scene:
Two chimps in a rocket ship. (all dialogue paraphrased)
CHIMP 1. Let’s face it, I’m not a real astronaut.
CHIMP 2. Are you wearing an aluminum suit?
CHIMP 1. Yes, but…
CHIMP 2. Are you inside a space ship?
CHIMP 1. Well, yes…
CHIMP 2. Are you in space?
CHIMP 1. Yes, but I…
CHIMP 2. Are you David Bowie?
CHIMP 1. Nnnooo…
CHIMP 2. Then you’re an astronaut!
SAM. (noting Dad’s laugh) What does that even mean?
DAD. (beat — how to put?) David Bowie is a singer. He had a famous song about being an astronaut. So it’s a joke about that.
SAM. (beat, then, trying it out) “Are you David Bowie?” (laugh)
(Dad did not go on to explain that the real reason for his laugh is that there is another, slightly funnier aspect to the line for him, which is that Chimp 2 is voiced by Patrick Warburton, who also voices the character Brock Samson on the TV series The Venture Bros, a show which also prominently features David Bowie as a character. One step at a time for teaching Sam showbiz in-jokes.)
At the top, of course, is the name of the protagonist. Directly below that is the row of “false grails” that Indy has ignored. Finally, at the bottom, we see Indy with the true grail. We know it’s Indy because of his hat. Indy, as we can see, is very happy to have chosen the true grail. Perhaps drinking from the true grail will get him to re-grow his lower body.
Now that Hillary Clinton has reminded us that there’s still time to assassinate Barack Obama before the convention, I feel it is incumbent upon me to present a corrective to ugliness and despair, Little Birdy, the newest volume by my daughter Kit (5). Take note, Caldecott committee.
Faced with headlines like this, the world is ready, I believe, for a story about a unicorn, and a little girl, and a hat, and a circus.
Dad is not the only storyteller in the Alcott family. This is by Kit (5). As difficult as it is for me to wrap my mind around the idea that my daughter, when, given the chance, thinks up stories about unicorns, little girls, and hats, and circuses, I cannot argue with the sweep and punch of the results.
Hollywood studio executives will no doubt note Kit’s grasp of the surprise twist ending. Not content with one, she here supplies us with two. Or three. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan!
UPDATE: Fox has just called regarding the rights to The Wonder Unicorn. They’re thinking of Queen Latifah as a streetwise, sassy unicorn and Evan Rachel Wood as the little girl.
My apologies to my readers who wait with bated breath for my analysis of The Color Purple. My son Sam (6) had a day off from school, and my daughter Kit (5) has a school that consists primarily of her being out of the house for four hours, so my wife and I decided to take them to Disneyland.
We got to the gate at 10:00 on the dot, ie at the exact same time as everyone else. It was surprisingly crowded, I thought, for a Monday morning in April. I have memories of going on a Tuesday afternoon in February of 1996 and the place was almost deserted — there were no lines for anything and I was able to see absolutely everything I wanted to, including the robot Abraham Lincoln, by late afternoon. At which point I shrugged and said “Well, I guess I’m kind of done with this place until I have a couple of kids.” Hence yesterday.
Sam was keen on seeing only two things — the Indiana Jones Adventure ride and Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed simulator ride. He was a little anxious about the rides themselves — he dislikes roller coasters — but he wanted very badly to visit the gift shops associated with the rides to gather props and costume pieces. Kit, on the other hand, likes the Teacups, and generally would be happy to spend the whole day in the pink section of the map.
(Sam had just attended a Star Wars themed birthday party over the weekend where Obi-Wan, Anakin, Boba Fett, Darth Vader and Darth Sidious had all shown up and done bits with the kids. Sam had worn his elaborate Darth Vader costume and is very much into dressing up, or “cosplay” as the older set refers to it.)
The Indiana Jones Adventure was the longest wait of the day — 50 minutes before we got on the ride — and Sam loved, loved, loved absolutely everything about it, right up until the point where he actually had to get into the oversize Jeep that takes you through the experience. I see his point — the wait for the ride is, by a long measure, the most elaborate, detailed and atmospheric I’ve ever experienced, and in the middle of Disneyland that’s saying a lot. There are caves, booby-traps, an ancient temple, a newsreel, period music and all sorts of mood-enhancing foofaraw to get visitors hyped on the experience. The ride itself is rattlingly, shudderingly violent in the way it whips you around in your seat and parades you past a host of scares, thrills and spectacles — far too much to absorb in one go-around — and Sam spent the three-minute experience clutching my arm, with his face buried in my elbow. He was very precise in his assessment of the experience; he didn’t mind the scares — he likes being scared — but he cannot abide the “jerking around.” Indeed, I would agree with him. The Indiana Jones Adventure is an incredible ride, but the violence inflicted on my physical body is considerable.
(I now wonder if Sam’s love of being scared and his disdain for being “jerked around” explains his love of Jurassic Park and his indifference toward E.T.)
While Sam was being terrified on the dark, violent, genuinely frightening Indiana Jones Adventure, Kit was being terrified on the sunny, cheesy, outdated Jungle Cruise, the benign, walk-through Tarzan Treehouse and the utterly laid-back Storybook Land Cruise. Kit, it should be noted, does not like getting scared.
After Indiana Jones, Sam wanted to proceed directly to Star Tours, but my wife and I had made the decision to not split up the day in boy/boy-girl/girl adventures, and we met up on Tom Sawyer Island, or, as it’s now known, “Pirate’s Lair.” The whole way, Sam was insistent almost to the point of complaining (Why can’t we do Star Tours and then meet Mom and Kit? Why do we have to go to the island? Why can’t Mom and Kit come to us? etc.), then, the second we got to the island, he saw there was a treehouse and a complex network of caves, bridges and shipwrecks and we didn’t see either kid for about two hours as they went exploring.
I was a little dismayed at the half-hearted conversion of Tom Sawyer Island into Pirate’s Lair. A lot of the structures are the same, with only tiny emendations to change the island from the Mississippi to the Caribbean. The treetrunk of the treehouse still has “Tom + Becky” carved in it and the island is littered with an utterly anachronistic Indian Village, a river raft, a moose and a derailed coal train. It’s almost as though the Disney folk were hedging their bets, worried that this whole “Pirate” fad will blow over at any time and they’ll have to change the island back to Twainland.
(On the way back from Pirate’s Lair we ran into Jack Sparrow, who, when addressed by that name by a park visitor, resentfully murmured “Captain Jack Sparrow,” in a completely convincing Depp-like drawl, his delivery pitched at a volume no one but me could actually hear. This forced me to realize, yet again, that for all its faults, Disneyland is a demon for details.)
(Oddly, this visit was, for me, one of discovery — almost every attraction we hit was brand-new to me, even though it had been sitting there in plain sight for 54 years.)
Once off Pirate’s Lair (highlight for adults — real baby ducks) Sam and I split off again to see Star Tours while Kit and Mom headed for the Teacups and the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire. The wait at Star Tours wasn’t very long, and as usual there’s plenty of atmosphere to soak up, but as the ride itself approached I began to get apprehensive on Sam’s behalf. Sam understands what a simulator is, but the signs warned that Star Tours is a “turbulent” ride — meaning, you get jerked around a lot. I tried to explain this to Sam, who was confident he’d be okay. In the case of Star Tours, he was willing to get jerked around since there was no actual forward motion involved. Somehow the combination of the two is the thing that sets him on edge.
In the end, Sam made it through a good portion of Star Tours with his eyes open, then enthusiastically made a beeline for the gift shop. He had been given a special Disney Allowance of $20 and spent it on a special Star Tours blaster rifle. When he found out there was a separate entrance to the shop, he said, rather in the manner of a man who has just realized he has been duped, “Wait a minute — you mean I could have made it to the gift shop without having to go on the ride?”
(A note on Star Tours: the signs out front mention that it’s a collaboration between Disney and Lucas, and the experience confirms that — and points out how uneasy a fit those two sensibilities are. Cool Lucas-type design sits right next to cloying, Disney-type design, with big-eyed wisecracking droids and production values that only help remind the guest that Star Wars is a very cool movie indeed, while The Black Hole is deeply uncool.)
Hard upon Star Tours was the Jedi Training Academy, held at the Tomorrowland Terrace, an interactive stage show where kids can train with lightsabers — provided they are picked from the crowd by the Jedi teaching the class. We got there early to get a good seat, and once the show started things got overwhelming very quickly. The actor playing the Jedi Master was convincing, dynamic and in complete control of his difficult situation — organizing, inspiring and directing a group of small children in a rather complicated game, with a dramatic arc, that had to be wrapped up in 30 minutes.
The process of selecting which children go up on stage was, we were told, up to the actor playing the Jedi Master, and Sam, for reasons still a little mysterious to me, didn’t want to press his case too emphatically. As the Jedi Master selected kids from the crowd, everyone else jumped up and down and screamed while Sam subtly raised his hand. I don’t know if it was his sense of manners, a fear of being chosen, or a belief in the justness of his cause that kept him from speaking up, but in the end he was chosen and took his place on stage. Each youngling was given a training robe and a “training lightsaber” (ie, a plastic toy just like the ones they have at home) and the class was then led through a series of sword-fighting moves. No sooner had they learned a simple five-step fight routine than Darth Vader showed up with Darth Maul to challenge the students to a fight.
The actors playing Vader and Maul were both very convincing, to the point where some of the kids started freaking out. There was no attempt to softpedal the villains’ scariness, and the actor playing Maul was particularly aggressive in his attack. When it came time to fight, some of the kids were overenthusiastic, others were terrified to the point of tears. Sam tried to take the whole thing seriously but found that it all went too fast. I also have the feeling that Sam’s emotions were clouded by the fact that he greatly prefers the dark side characters — if he could have, he would have joined Vader and taken over the galaxy.
In any case, Vader and Maul were defeated, the Stormtroopers were sent packing, and all the kids were pronounced Padawans, complete with diploma (but without the robes and lightsabers). The diploma, interestingly, includes a political message, reminding the child that the Force must only be used in defense, never to attack.
Sam and I headed toward Fantasyland to hook up with Mom and Kit, who were investigating the Alice in Wonderland ride, King Arthur’s Carrousel and the Princess Faire show. We stopped at Autopia, another ride I’d never been on, where Sam got to drive his own car. He was a little too short to reach the pedal, but once he got the hang of it he delighted in swerving back and forth, trying to crash into stuff. I said “So, wait — I thought you said you don’t like being jerked around,” to which Sam replied, giggling, “Yeah, but not when I’m the one doing the jerking.” So the issue, finally, is not the jerking but the lack of control.
We found Mom and Kit at the Once Upon A Time shop in Fantasyland, where Kit was purchasing a Minnie Mouse As Princess doll. I don’t know where Kit’s interest in Minnie Mouse comes from. I don’t know where any child’s interest in Minnie Mouse comes from. Or Mickey Mouse, for that matter. They are barely represented in Disney fare except on the most superficial level, faces on corporate product. As characters they barely register to me; they stand for nothing, personify no particular point of view. Who looks at them and feels a deep sense of identification?
The kids were still going strong at this point, but Mom and Dad were about to drop, so we headed to the Rancho del Zocalo, the Mexican place in Frontierland. The food was great, the line was short and there were plenty of places to sit, which is all one can ask of a Disney restaurant. It was a big improvement over the last Disneyland dining experience my family had, where it was so crowded in New Orleans Square that we had to eat our clam chowder while perched on a wall on a major thoroughfare.
At one point, Kit was handed a sheet of temporary tattoos by a cast member who happened by, and at another point was handed a pair of Tinkerbell pins by another (“one to keep, and one to give”). These encounters were random and unsolicited. And again, one can find plenty of things to complain about in Disneyland, but the way they’ve got the guest’s experience figured out sets them far apart from any other theme park I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been to great roller coaster parks like Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, a park with no particular point of view, where guests are forced to wait for hours in the hot sun with nothing to do but stare at the people ahead of them in line. There’s always something to look at while in line at Disneyland and the longest lines are always engineered in interesting ways that help build anticipation for the experience instead of emphasizing the length of the wait. The time generally flies at Disneyland, and while the prices are steep, I can’t remember a time when I left feeling cheated. Add to that random encounters with movie characters who hand out free stuff to your kids and I’m sorry, for a parent it’s all pretty awesome. Yes I know, it’s a gesture designed by a behemoth corporation, intended solely to extract more money from the child’s parents, but I feel like that’s the society we live in, and if a corporation takes your money while teaching your children generosity and non-aggression, well, at least it’s something.
After dinner we happened upon the nearly deserted Sailing Ship Columbia, which was about six times more interesting than I expected it to be. It’s outfitted like a genuine eighteenth-century merchant vessel and it, improbably, actually succeeded in giving one a vague impression of what lifeat sea on a ship like this, for years at a time, might have been like.
Then we headed over to New Orleans Square, where there was no line for the Haunted Mansion. Kit had never been to the Haunted Mansion, and Sam has only been to it while it was re-dressed in Nightmare Before Christmas holiday mode, so we decided to go in. Sam was underwhelmed, I was delighted (it was better than I remember it and has been subtly improved over the years), Mom was slightly disappointed (she remembered it being not so dark). Kit, sadly, went in frightened and was reduced to whimpering apoplexy by the end.
To help Kit over her trauma, I took her for three or four (I lost count) rides on the no-line Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride. The Winnie-the-Pooh ride, like many of the younger-skewing experiences, is weirder, more disturbing and more psychedelic than one would imagine. But it did the trick and got Kit ready for the final events of the day, the Dumbo ride in Fantasyland and the Astro Orbiters in Tommorowland. The difference between the two rides, as far as I can tell, is that they revolve in opposite directions, and Dumbo is three minutes long, while the Astro Orbiters are only a minute and a half. Neither had lines worth worrying about, typical for the younger rides after sundown.
All in all, I think I saw more of the park than I have in any other single-day visit and didn’t even lay eyes on huge swaths of it.
Kit was asleep before we left the parking structure, Sam examined his Star Wars toys for a few minutes but was out before we got to the highway.
Sam (6) has discovered money, and the power of money, and the glory of money. Money, he has realized, can buy Star Wars toys, and a great deal of money can buy big Star Wars toys.
So Sam is willing to do just about anything at this point to get some money.
My wife, seizing upon this new capitalistic streak, has put him to work around the house, performing more-or-less useful tasks that pose no immediate threat to his health or to local property values.
Yesterday she puts him to work washing our patio doors (which, to be fair, need washing). For the performance of this task she offers him two dollars. The deal is accepted and he goes to work with a pail and sponge.
Enter Kit, kid sister (5). Kit sees Sam washing the windows and wonders how she ever felt fulfillment playing with Polly Pocket. She now wants to wash windows too — not for the money, but to be included, and for the sheer giddy joy of it.
In another time, in another story, Tom Sawyer once put the whole neighborhood to work whitewashing a fence because he was lazy and canny, and he knew it would make a good plot-point in a deathless novel. But in the year 2007, kids and household tasks have changed. Kit approached Sam and asked if she could help and Sam became hysterical. Cries of rage and dishonor echoed around the block. Sam was furious, not because Kit might be cutting in on his window-washing fun, but because he was worried that if Kit was willing to wash windows for nothing, the job could be done without Sam and Sam would be out his two dollars.
Just another example of skilled workers struggling to keep their jobs against a tide of newcomers willing to do the job for less — California economics in a nutshell. And the WGA strike too, I suppose.
It’s not my intention to turn this journal into a “kids art” blog, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include some drawings by my daughter Kit (4). Kit does not have her older brother Sam’s single-minded, monomaniacal drive regarding superheroes, but she does have a healthy interest in them, leavened by interests in other things, like, say, Maisy, Speed Racer, Tom and Jerry, Polly Pocket and so forth.
Above are two of her drawings, of Wonder Woman (with her tiara) and Cinderella (with her beehive and bow). The thick black line sticking out of WW’s head is her hair — Kit doesn’t quite get the whole gravity thing yet. And Cinderella’s hands are not on fire; those are her fingers.