Saturday, June 25, 2011

You’d Be by a Song Redeemed

Sometimes you believe you know something just because it saturates the culture around you, even though you have never actually explored it alone. That's pretty much what I went through with the Beatles: being surrounded by people who were Beatles fans in one way or another, as well as being a pop culture junkie, I felt that I had seen it all, when I had really seen nothing, as I had never checked out the Beatles actively and for myself.

However, I had always wanted to check out the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, because weird cartoons were much closer to my heart than the Beatles’ music. When I finally did watch Yellow Submarine a while ago, I enjoyed it with gusto. The film is visually fantastic, and this and other factors manage to elevate its more pedestrian, or potentially disastrous, plot elements.

The plot of Yellow Submarine checks off all the boxes when it comes to the transformation of celebrities into fictional heroes: putting them into the role of saviours without their having done anything heroic before, providing with a simplistic enemy to defeat, and furnishing them with a goofy cartoon sidekick. In this case, the Fab Four are recruited to help save the “earthly paradise” called Pepperland from the wrath of the Blue Meanies, azure creatures who despise music and happiness and are intent on turning the vibrant Pepperland stony and grey. By a mind-blowing coincidence, the Beatles have four alter egos in the imprisoned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Pepperland, and the Beatles also later team up with their alter egos to beat the Meanies back. The scholarly creature Jeremy Hilary Boob, PhD, a.k.a. “The Nowhere Man”, also accompanies them.

On paper, this sounds like any of the other horrible celebrity cartoons from popular culture's dustbin. However, even if it follows that formula, Yellow Submarine is pretty damn good despite. The film's visual invention and its dry sense of humour are the two main things that manage to save it from feeling like a cheap cash-in. There's surreal imagery everywhere, creative and unsettling monsters (more varieties of Blue Meanies than I ever knew about, though the most iconic Blue Meanies are also the most unnerving), and bizarre settings.

In terms of the humour, the toon-Beatles take everything around them in complete stride, offering hilariously deadpan reactions to whatever situation they happen to be in, which makes the film a lot funnier than expected. This kind of thing starts even before the Beatles are introduced, as the sleepy-voiced narrator at the beginning of the film admits that he’s not sure if “lay” or “lie” is the correct way to describe the relative position of Pepperland beneath the sea. This gives the film a strangely mature feel, banal plot or not.

The Nowhere Man, aka Jeremy Hilary Boob PhD, is a lot more lovable and entertaining than he has any right to be. The fuzzy, masked creature should by all rights be annoying like so many others before him, but his quirky eccentricity paired with academic pretentiousness is endearing rather than grating, and he is much stranger, and a slightly richer, character.

Jeremy is first seen trying to engage in a dozen intellectual pursuits at once, and it is tacitly implied that he’s not good at any of them, and is obviously producing his material to no one, in the white void that the Beatles find themselves in. This allows the segue into the “Nowhere Man” musical number, and it’s a hard heart that feels nothing when Jeremy is seen crying at the end of it.

In viewing the film, I also found a new potential interest in Beatles music. Not all of the songs were enjoyable, but some of them were pretty catchy. This was the DVD version, which also meant it included the “Hey Bulldog” number, too (the four-headed Blue Meanie dog is weirdly cute), which is notable for being both catchy and dark, and it’s a shame that it was cut from the original U.S. release.

As their cartoon selves, the Beatles aren’t too engaging as characters. Whatever the real men are, these characters largely speak lines that could have come from each other’s mouths, manifesting few distinguishing traits. Ringo is the most defined, being firmly portrayed as the buttmonkey/softie, and John is the most overtly nerdy, with speeches about alter egos and time travel, but his characterization is less established, though still more than Paul and George. It’s not too much to ask for real people to become interesting characters in their own right when transformed into cartoons, though to be fair the film gets along just fine without much depth of character.

Overall, it’s a shame that this DVD is now out of print (though easy enough to track down online, thankfully). Merchandise for it is still clogging up HMV stores, and Yellow Submarine is certainly a film that deserves to be remembered beyond that.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Peculiar Olympians: Shayera “Hawkgirl” Hol

“The Peculiar Olympians” is a series of blog posts about my most favourite fictional characters. They are each here for some combination of sympathy, empathy, inspiration, humour, quality, staying power, and/or significance to my relationship with fandom. These are not all the characters that I like, but they are the ones that have stood out to me the most. The list is also alphabetical and nothing more.

Superheroes are one aspect of popular culture that I'm mostly dead towards. I don't hate them, just that it's hard for me to get into them for various reasons: they don’t excite me that much visually or conceptually, so that I can’t look past the infinite and ultimately shapeless storytelling for the majority of them. The one exception is the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited portrayal of Hawkgirl, aka Shayera Hol. She didn’t open any floodgates, but she is a great character in her own right, and I am content with her.

Shayera is a winged humanlike alien from the warrior planet of Thanagar. She claimed first to have been accidentally transported to Earth when chasing a criminal, but in truth was an advance scout for her people, sent to evaluate Earth's defences. Supposedly this was to precede a Thanagarian protection of Earth, but in fact Earth was to be made a link in the chain for a Thanagarian hyperspace bypass.

The process would destroy the planet, while giving the Thanagarians advantage in a war that had nothing to do with Earth. When she discovered the truth, Shayera decided to betray her own people to save the planet. This was despite already regarded as a traitor by the Justice League for initially aiding the Thanagarians, even when they began to use force to ensure cooperation.

A heroic character must conquer something inside themselves in order to seem truly heroic. For this reason, Shayera's harrowing experience turning against her own people in the three-part Justice League finale “Starcrossed” was what made her completely click with me as a character. Before that, however, her sense of humour and take-no-crap attitude had already won me over, although she was a character with a sense of balance, in that whatever trait she expressed, Shayera never took it to excess, never became abrasive or berserk.

Pairing this with a strong central conflict and a compelling love story (in which Shayera must choose between men representing her past and future) pushed Shayera to the A-list. Her further adventures once returning to the League were somewhat lacklustre, but even with the salad days of her characterization over, Shayera never lost her appeal.

I must also add that it's only this particular version of Hawkgirl, rewritten and streamlined, which appeals to me. I have tried several times to become attached to the various DC comics characters that she was based on, but none of it took. Part of it is that the Hawk characters have many different iterations and backstories, being notably convoluted in an already convoluted hero universe. However, the major issue is that Shayera’s appeal depends mostly on circumstances and personality traits unique to the animated Justice League. Thus, only animated Hawkgirl really counts for this.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Excitement Wears a Red Fez

I've taken my next step into watching more live-action science fiction with the latest iteration of Dr. Who. I've seen two episodes so far, “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People”, which are airing up here on SPACE.

The theme and content of these episodes were pretty muddled, but I’m already completely sold on the series in at least this iteration, namely because of the Eleventh Doctor. I absolutely love his characterization: he's eccentric without being overbearing and artificial, and is quite capable of expressing other emotions, including an unnervingly clinical attitude. Such multiple facets in a single character are intriguing, and so is the promise of the series offering a wide variety of potential SF concepts.

Of course, this decision wasn't just made at random after watching Babylon 5 re-ignited my interest in live-action science fiction. I'd actually been building up an interest in the latest Dr. Who for quite a while, and yes, it was powered almost entirely by Matt Smith's quirkiness. A handful of clips and videos from various nerdy websites gradually warmed me to the possibility of liking the character. And what a character.

I'd acquired some basic knowledge of Dr. Who through pop-cultural osmosis, but this was the first time I'd been driven to seek it out. One thing that I'm embarrassed to mention, though, is that Matt Smith first stuck out in my mind because he bore a vague resemblance to one of my favourite obscure anime characters: Rori Dosel, from Super Dimensional Fortress Macross


Yes, one could poke many holes in this idea, including me. My logical brain tells me there's not that much of a physical resemblance and no personality resemblance (since Rori doesn't really have a personality) but I keep viscerally thinking, “That's Rori” whenever I look at Eleven. Oh, and looking at Amy Pond also brought to mind Shammy Milliome, another Macross character who was associated with Rori. But, since this series of Dr. Who already has a character named Rory (shocker!), maybe we could just call him Rico, which is Rori’s name in the Robotech dub. Confused yet? It’s a fun little chain of coincidence, and remains so, even if there is obviously more substance to my interest in Eleven.