Tag Archives: animation

The Best Series of 2021

The most important thing to understand about lists like this is that they’ll always exclude something. No critic can watch everything out there that’s worth watching. The choices a critic makes in what they prioritize can help you understand how a list like this can be useful.

For instance, even though many of my friends have raved about it, I just can’t bring myself to watch “Succession”. Perhaps it belongs on this list. Satire though it may be, I just can’t bring myself to spend that much time invested in which billionaire gets to make more billions while others go home super sad about only possessing the billions they already have. I’m sure it’s good. I’m sure I’d also feel a deep pit in my stomach even touching it.

As viewers, the feelings we have like that are legitimate, and every good critic is ultimately a viewer who has a desire to connect with and share what they love with others. There are times when we push our comfort, for good and bad reasons, and there are times where we realize we can do more or better work in other places.

It was a priority for me to watch series from different countries. It’s great that South Korean series “Squid Game” is breaking through, and it’s on my list. Yet if we were really being inclusive in our viewing choices, South Korea’s television industry is so overbrimming it should be getting best-of entries every year.

When “Squid Game” is a breakthrough rather than part of a norm, it means that critics are following audiences rather than shining a light on what’s next. If “Squid Game” hadn’t set viewing records, would it have made so many critics’ year-end lists? Probably not, because there’s a well of other Korean series of equal quality in this year and years past.

Is “Squid Game” the only entry on a list from somewhere outside the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.? Then you know something about that critic’s scope. Don’t get me wrong – watching more international series means that I’ve sacrificed watching a few U.S. ones. My point isn’t that one is inherently better than the other; my point is that this information gives you a perspective on what different lists can tell you.

What other priorities inform this list? I tend to lean toward series that buck tradition and try something risky or ambitious. If there’s an element of absurdism, abstraction, or magical realism that’s pulled off well, I tend to like it even if it asks me to do that much more work as a viewer. I like empathy, not just on the part of a series, but also in being asked as a viewer to stretch and view perspectives I might not have sought out in the past.

I don’t mind if a series occasionally shortcuts a plot point with the mutual understanding viewers have seen it a thousand times before and can assume the A-to-B of it. I think world-building doesn’t matter that much for the world you’re creating; I need to see how it’s shaped the lives, understandings, and relationships of the characters who live in that world.

I don’t mind a little bit of melodrama. Where the U.S. tends to incorporate theatrical and even melodramatic performances told within a “gritty”, verite-heavy filmmaking approach, a lot of the rest of the world prefers more understated, verite performances told within a melodramatic filmmaking delivery. We all secretly like melodrama; the only difference is where we place it.

Oh, and some of the best series of recent years have been canceled prematurely. If you’re looking at committing to a series, it helps to know if it’s self-contained or will get to continue, rather than simply being canceled. I’ll mention on each whether it’s been renewed. On with the list:

10. What We Do in the Shadows

The series adaptation of the 2014 mockumentary follows a trio of vampires and their familiar living together on Staten Island. In season three, they’ve just been named leaders of their local vampiric council. It seems like a success, but it’s really the beginning of the group fracturing apart.

Past seasons have been funny, skewering horror movies, bureaucracy, and the “Office” style mockumentary format itself. This season turns into something else, though. Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillen, and Kayvan Novak all feel like they have rangier roles to play, while still allowing room for now-regular Kristen Schaal to hit the ground running. It’s Matt Berry, in all his skill at overblown bluster, who ultimately reveals the deep heart the show’s built upon.

Without losing its humor, “What We Do in the Shadows” turns into a moving consideration of how found family unites and bonds – and also drifts apart. Questions about feeling lost in the world and wanting meaning abound in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and loaded with ennui. It feels like “What We Do in the Shadows” has taken on a much larger mantle than it has before, one that feels more immediate, relevant, and invested in the humanity of its inhuman characters.

Platform: FX on Hulu, Fubo TV

Is “What We Do in the Shadows” renewed? Yes. A fourth season will premiere in 2022.

9. Squid Game

“Squid Game” exquisitely describes the world we live in. Gambling addict Gi-hun is roped into a get-rich quick scheme. Go play some children’s games for a few days, and make millions. Effectively estranged from his daughter, he sees it as his only chance at making amends. The others who show up to play are similarly hard up – they owe money to the government, loan sharks, gangs, you name it. Even when it becomes apparent the losers of the games are all killed, the realities of the world outside make it clear that they have about as much chance in the games as they do in the corrupt, abusive world of late-stage capitalism.

There are wrinkles that I won’t divulge. Like any large organization, the place isn’t exactly run terribly well. Players cheat, employees cheat, all to make an extra buck. There’s as much tension in whether the games will continue as in who wins them. At the point where we as an audience are anticipating the next game and hoping it goes on, what does that say about us?

Lee Jung-jae gives an incredible performance as Gi-hun. He creates one of the most complex characters of the year. He’s at once deeply charming and hopeful, someone at his best when helping others, yet he’s also manipulative and constantly seeking enablement. It’s a delicate balance to still make us like and hope for him.

Oh Yeong-su captured every viewer’s heart as the elderly Oh Il-nam. Lost in some of the conversation is Jung Hoyeon, playing a North Korean escapee who wants the money to help her family leave that country. She’s asked once whether the outside is better, as she weighs the value of her own life against someone else’s for money. She doesn’t answer.

Platform: Netflix

Is “Squid Game” renewed? It seems to be, but they’re going to take their time with it. If I had to bet, I’d guess we won’t see a Season 2 until 2023 at the earliest.

8. The Club

This Turkish drama is lavish, intricate, and deeply felt, with a melodramatic flourish that reflects the 1955 nightclub at its center. Matilda is freshly released from prison after serving time for murder. She has a nearly grown daughter, Rasel, but Matilda doesn’t want to see her. She simply plans to leave for Israel. This is derailed when Rasel steals from the club and Matilda agrees to work off a blank debt.

The drama of “The Club” rises from defining Turkish cultural conflicts. The East and West meld and clash. As Matilda is Jewish, the shadow of the Varlik Vergisi weighs heavily on her past. This was a 1942 tax on non-Muslims that resulted in a massive transfer of wealth based on religion and ethnicity, and the forced internment of those who couldn’t pay

Characters in “The Club” don’t serve as metaphors for these events and influences, but they have lived through them. These shape characters’ histories, biases, hopes, and fears. The cast is roundly superb. Gokce Bahadir stands out as Matilda, as does Salih Bademci’s visionary but self-sabotaging singer Selim Songur. Firat Tanis is exceptional as the club’s corrupt, abusive manger Celebi. He has a connection to Matilda’s past she hasn’t figured out.

If you can feel at ease with a few melodramatic fluorishes, such as a swelling music cue here or there, “The Club” has an underlying magic that’s difficult to define. It transports in the way the best period pieces do, and the characters feel a genuine part of that lived-in history. It has that sweeping, yearning sense that comes from depicting a place through both the details of its world, and the conflicting emotional realities of those who live within it.

Platform: Netflix

Is “The Club” renewed? Part 2’s already been filmed and premieres very soon, on January 6, 2022.

7. Only Murders in the Building

Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short star in a comedy mystery. A man’s been murdered in their New York apartment building, and they take it upon themselves to solve what the police have deemed a suicide. They’re bumbling at best, and on top of it all, decide to make a podcast about it. “Only Murders in the Building” speaks to our true crime media addiction, one that seems to prioritize narrative over truth. Luckily, these three veer wildly enough to occasionally dig up some morsel of a clue.

Martin and Short are 80s comedy legends, so it might surprise that it’s Gomez who most solidly anchors the story. Between this, “Spring Breakers”, and “The Dead Don’t Die”, she’s delivered three exceptional performances and should be thought of more seriously. The supporting cast includes Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch, and Sting, toying relentlessly with the idea that the famous guest star must be guilty.

What “Only Murders in the Building” is really about is loneliness, though. Each of the three leads deals with loneliness, isolation, trauma, and regret in very different ways. Gomez’s Mabel is self-sufficient and deliberate in her actions, Martin’s Charles is locked in an unthinking, melancholic routine, and Short’s Oliver reaches out constantly to those he’s already disappointed or betrayed. That “Only Murders in the Building” works as a caring, empathetic examination of loneliness, and a wildly successful comedy is a uniquely disarming pairing.

Platform: Hulu

Is “Only Murders in the Building” renewed? Yes. The first season leaves a cliffhanger for a Season 2 that was picked up quickly and is currently filming. Expect it sometime in 2022.

6. My Name

You could pick any number of Korean series for this list and have a strong argument. “My Name” was the one that captured me the most. The premise of a woman joining the police to track down a killer within their ranks reflects a number of other undercover gangster projects: particularly “The Departed” and its inspiration “Infernal Affairs”.

“My Name” mixes together a number of familiar elements from John Woo action films to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy and Michael Mann projects like “Heat” and “Miami Vice”. I’d even say it does so better than its more well-known progenitors. It also avoids creating a false nobility for the gangs the way so many highly regarded U.S. projects have done in the past. What’s here is brief, brutal, and feels far more grounded than flights of golden era Mafia-worshiping.

“My Name” pitches to a fever intensity by the second episode that it refuses to let go until the series’ end. Han So-hee carries nearly every minute of the show. She delivers one of the top performances this year.

The action scenes feature creative fight choreography with a lot of moving pieces. There’s an evocative editing that reflects the single-minded drive of the show’s lead, while also pushing the emotions she can’t allow herself to feel. One interesting decision in the show is to lean heavily on a single song, repeating in different circumstances. It reflects how Ji-woo (undercover as police officer Hye-jin) has honed herself to just be one thing, to have a singular intent no matter the circumstance. In many ways the show is edited and scored to feel what its lead has compartmentalized away. “My Name” is one of the best revenge sagas of recent memory.

Platform: Netflix

Is “My Name” renewed? Like many Korean series, “My Name” is designed as a fully self-contained season. It’s not designed to be renewed, so it’s unlikely.

5. Evil

“Evil” follows a team that assesses mysteries for the Catholic Church. These range from suspected demonic possessions to investigating a potential sainthood. What makes the show work so well is that only one member of the team of three is Catholic – a priest in training named David. The psychologist Kristen and debunker Ben are both Atheist, though from different backgrounds. Kristen is a lapsed Catholic and Ben was raised Muslim.

The discussions they have in trying to figure out the mysteries are extremely well-written, and range from the personal to the philosophical. They add significant weight and meaning to the best horror show on TV right now.

Usually, I don’t go in for Catholic horror. It’s all so inconsistently codified it gets a bit silly to me. “Evil” doesn’t try to hide or explain away those inconsistencies, or avoid criticisms of the Catholic Church. Those inconsistencies and criticisms confuse and divide the characters, too. Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, and Christine Lahti make up my favorite ensemble of the year.

“Evil” reflects earlier unexplained investigation shows like “The X-Files” and “Fringe”, but it does a much better job than either of giving you multiple explanations. Some of its mysteries are debunked, others aren’t. When something is explained, is that simply the path something demonic took to achieve it? In some episodes, they don’t even know which religion’s demons are in question. Many situations are solved without being fully fixed, which feels realistic. By sometimes denying us the closure of consequence, “Evil” feels that much more consequential. The writing makes it reasonable that the believer still believes, that the Atheists don’t, and that they can all identify a common trust and productive purpose that pushes them forward as a team.

“Evil” also has a wicked, occasionally fourth-wall breaking sense of humor. Demons troll visions from God with meme gifs. A nearly dialogue-free episode at a silent monastery has way too much fun with subtitled inner thoughts. The pop-up book used to introduce episodes to the audience in the second season becomes real to the characters midway through.

Perhaps the biggest strength of “Evil” is one that it could be a little rough getting down in its first season: it incorporates elements of kitsch, camp, and meme culture in quiet, understated ways that subvert our expectations, unravel our explanations, and unnerve us with the very things that usually feel a refuge.

Platform: Paramount Plus

Is “Evil” renewed? Yes. A third season was announced halfway through season two, reflecting a strong showing. Expect it sometime in 2022.

4. Reservation Dogs

Four indigenous teens try to make sense of reservation life after losing their friend. They steal in order to save enough money to leave, some reconnecting with their families and some drifting further away. The series features all indigenous writers and directors, and a mostly indigenous cast. The amount of talent working here, that other studios and platforms have routinely overlooked, is staggering: Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, Lane Factor, Sarah Podemski, Dallas Goldtooth, Gary Farmer, Lil Mike and Funny Bone, Elva Guerra, each of them could probably lead their own shows.

It shows in the final result, with even small scenes taking on emotional weight and stellar comic timing. “Reservation Dogs” hearkens back to 90s indie comedy, particularly in its small-scale, sometimes aimless tone. Yet 90s indie comedy could also spark of a lot of privilege; “Reservation Dogs” uses the form to critique and highlight life without it. It has a way of building that the genre never had, of revealing moments that are far more real and relevant.

One thing I really appreciate here is that the comedy isn’t directed at me. It’s created to make indigenous people laugh. As a viewer, there are expectations of me to broaden my understanding of comedy staples and the truths they can evoke. “Reservation Dogs” doesn’t come with every reference explained, but that can help me see what an episode is doing in a way I wouldn’t if the explanation was catered to me.

There are absolute gems of episodes here: “NDN Clinic” turns an aimless, meandering day into a perfect memory, “Come and Get Your Love” connects the importance of legend to who we become, “Hunting” is a stunning, haunting, and funny reflection on loss, and “California Dreamin’” is a chance for Jacobs to demonstrate just how phenomenal an actor she is.

Platform: FX on Hulu

Is “Reservation Dogs” renewed? Yes. A second season has been announced for 2022.

3. Sonny Boy

An entire high school shifts out of reality, into a dimension of nothingness. The adults are nowhere to be found. The students organize, trying to make the best of the situation. As they shift through more dimensions, they realize some students have powers. Imbalances develop. The group splits, looks for people to blame, re-organizes. The dimensions they investigate each have their own rules, often born of metaphor, as if designed.

Magical realism and metaphor can struggle to work together in balance. One or the other usually takes over as a story’s focus, regardless of the medium. That’s fine, but “Sonny Boy” takes a difficult path in balancing the two elegantly. The series is exceptionally abstract: complex, disjointed, full of time skips, dimensions that only half-explain themselves, powers that equip the students with magical tools that look like toys, rulesets within rulesets.

The result is a series that would become too confusing to grasp if it wasn’t so well-guided by meaning. We make sense of the meaning first, and then the logic comes around and fills in some gaps, often hitting in a Kafka-esque way that can hurt. “Sonny Boy” begins to feel like an impressionist landscape of relationships, joys, anxieties, dreams, regrets. Moments can feel like a gut punch, yet never because of something over-emotive. Instead, it’s because we make sense of why a meaning is shaped the way it is. Why is a world designed just so? Why does a character leave something unspoken? What disaffection in the powerful shapes a society? What part of ourselves do we leave behind in order to adapt? What loss means enough to still be guided by the one we lost, or to even repeat that loss?

“Sonny Boy” can feel like an expression of helplessness, or the determination to work against that lack of hope. It manages to be both sides at once, to show the dual natures within us that feel forlorn at trying to change the world, and that will do our best to try anyway. No other show this year captures what it is to grow up, to put our past selves away even as we keep parts of them alive, to pair the joyful with the bittersweet, to choose the difficult because it’s at least a choice, to do the thankless because it’s right. No other show this year is so deeply, relentlessly, and sometimes pitilessly human.

Platform: Hulu, Funimation

Is “Sonny Boy” renewed? “Sonny Boy” seems expressly designed as a single, self-contained season. It’s original, not based on a manga or other source material, so there’s no outside indication to think it would continue. Its ending is perfect in what it says, so in many ways I hope this season is it.

2. Made for Love

Hazel is trapped with everything she could ever want. She’s married to billionaire Byron Gogol, and lives in a holographic mansion with access to anything and anywhere. She’s desperate to either kill herself, or escape. She does the latter, only to discover he’s implanted a chip in her head that’s designed to fuse their minds together as one.

The high-concept premise works as both an extremely dark comedy, and as a cyberpunk allegory. Both center on our interconnected world, where who we are is whoever we portray, regardless of its reality, and where that portrayal itself becomes our source of fulfillment.

I’ve worked with people who’ve been stalked, and I’ve been stalked myself. Scenes of this in “Made for Love” are as close as I’ve seen to the horror of feeling like someone else controls where you can even feel safe, and what your choices are. Cristin Milioti is getting wildly overlooked for her role as Hazel.

The comedy here can range pretty far afield. Hazel’s refuge and ear for fundamentally feminist issues is her estranged father (Ray Romano), who turns out to now be in a relationship with a sex doll. Investigators on both sides are regularly distracted or incompetent. These things always come back to reflect on the core, though: the horror of who we are being controlled by who someone else wants us to be. When who we are and what we’re fulfilled by is a portrayal we project, and someone else gains control of it, then who the hell are we anymore?

Platform: HBO Max

Is “Made for Love” renewed? Yes. Season 2 is likely to drop in 2022.

1. Arcane

An overwhelmed technocrat stands before a warlord. It’s the technocrat’s city, but this doesn’t feel like his space. He is in uniform. She is naked in a bath, getting a massage. Between them in the frame stands the mural of an army. They face him, spears descending row by row until they come to point at him. He is out of his element. She is biding her time.

The rain in Caitlyn’s life always slides down surfaces in fits and starts. You can’t keep track of the lines it traces. It gives an impression of movement as she stays still, grasping to make a decision before others make it for her. She always meets the consequences head on, but she’s never able to track the cause and effect well enough to get ahead of them.

Two men stop each other on a ledge at different points in their lives. One meets the moment with closed eyes, the other open. They both offer support in ways they may not fully realize.

The voices of those lost are scratches on the film. The memories are drawn over like a child scratching out a word. She hides their expectations for her, their criticisms of her. Jinx destroys the reality of the story itself, even as we’ve seen it. She erases what we’ve witnessed so that she can rewrite her story as she pleases.

“Arcane” follows so much – twin cities that are breaking apart through inequality, an abusive police force, generations of characters whose accomplishments and mistakes echo in government, magic, and war for decades to follow. It follows young idealists who concede in order to realize ideals now poisoned. It follows a fight for freedom and self-determination. It follows a woman who’ll stop at nothing to save her abandoned sister, a…terrorist? A freedom fighter? It portrays the best romance of the year, a lesbian relationship that develops in fits and starts because of the overwhelming nature of the life-or-death decisions happening around them.

Crafted by French studio Fortiche, “Arcane” is one of the best pieces of fantasy put to screen. It’s an incredible leap forward in animation, fusing 3D and 2D approaches into something genuinely new. It’s the best piece of western animation since I was five. It’s the best piece of steampunk on film or TV. Its world-building is on par with something like “The Golden Compass”. It released as three acts, three episodes apiece, and if you wanted to call each act a film, then I’d call it the best film trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. Forget the modifiers; it’s thus far one of the best shows ever made. Even when I write these things, it feels like I’m understating just how emotional, artistic, and impactful “Arcane” really is.

“Arcane” is the show I always dreamed about because I knew it could never be made. I’m not talking about the source material, with which I’m only vaguely familiar. I mean what it becomes as a series. There’s not an episode I didn’t shed tears at – sure, because some parts are so human and empathetic, and sure, because it’s unique and overwhelming in its beauty. Yet there’s something deeper, something more artistically fundamental at play. It’s because when you’re in the rhythm of a phrase, when the poet or the painter needs you to yearn or smile or break, there’s a giving up at play. There’s a loosing of control that’s utterly rare, that requires so high a trust be given over.

Maybe it happens for a moment, when a word pierces our guard, when the twist of an idea is pushed home. That’s the thing – you expect it to happen for a moment before your guard returns. You don’t expect it to be down for hours at a time. You don’t expect to trust that much. What an impossible space that would be. What a relief in a world that batters us so much.

This is what “Arcane” creates so well. It’s a harrowing story, complexly told, beautifully depicted, it’s an advanced course in French art history, but above all it manages that impossible thing – it delivers that magic of becoming a place so beautifully, it feels safe to relinquish your burdens while you’re there. You’re in a storyteller’s hands, and what they’ve made is crafted with such exceptional, seemingly unprecedented care, you can feel the whole thing without guard.

Platform: Netflix

Is “Arcane” renewed? Yes. The first season took six years to make, and while a second season certainly wouldn’t take that long, it’s unlikely to premiere before 2023.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

“Arcane” is a Staggering Animation and Adaptation

We’ve waited for the first great adaptation of a video game. I mean the first honest-to-goodness, heart-in-throat kind of artistry that stands toe-to-toe with more traditional entries. The first three episodes of “Arcane” are out, and I think it’s safe to say that moment is finally here. We have an artistically stunning series adaptation of a video game that proves it can be done.

People who don’t play video games or who aren’t familiar with the source material might already be starting to zone out, so let me say this first. I’m not familiar with the lore of “League of Legends”, on which “Arcane” is based. It’s still a brilliant series. Have you ever seen a great movie without having read the book? It’s the same thing; it doesn’t matter if you’ve played the game or not. Great storytelling is great storytelling.

“Arcane” tells a tale of two sisters growing up in the neglected undercity of a shining steampunk metropolis. Vi and Powder lost their parents in an act of resistance years ago, and have taken up as thieves. “Arcane” shifts back and forth between the haves and the have-nots. The slightest provocation will send Piltover’s militarized police force flooding into the undercity; the slightest resistance is met with police brutality en masse.

Of course, the first job we see Vi and Powder pull off with their crew goes wrong, and sends Piltover combing through the undercity for them. “Arcane” is an action series, but it earns its action. The tension of watching police escalate a violent, occupying force is all too relevant today.

The storytelling here is phenomenal. Some elements in its universe will feel familiar, but the presentation feels genuinely new. How often do you get to say something feels new in a series? “Arcane” uses a gorgeously evocative presentation that feels like watching oil paintings move. More traditional elements of animation are used for the world itself, such as a sudden burst of dust, or drops of rain cascading down an umbrella at a lower frame rate.

The mixture of those familiar animated visual markers and that oil painting style gives “Arcane” a jaw-dropping range. Piltover is defined by its sun, pastels, and straight lines, while the undercity is a mass of neon colors, jumbled angles, and gradiated shadows. “Arcane” uses its quiet moments to staggering effect, relying on the atmosphere, blocking, and slowly developed visual metaphor to describe its characters’ internal lives.

Adaptations of video games into movies or series often fail because studios feel gamers want constant action. Yet gameplay is often defined by large moments of quiet that highlight those sudden moments where muscle memory kicks in and decisions have to be made instinctively. In MOBA games like “League of Legends”, a large amount of the gameplay relies on strategy, speculation, and team communication that can veer from orderly to panicked at a moment’s notice. Conflicts are chosen, and when they’re not, running away is often the wiser choice.

What makes games unique as a medium is the amount of player agency to explore spaces and gameplay loops however the player wants. The most memorable parts of even the most action-heavy FPS games tend to be quiet moments, the atmosphere that defines a game, or action where the player is forced to come up with a creative alternate plan after their first doesn’t work.

Some might pale at a player being proud when they rack up kills, but it’s no different from a chess player being proud when they amass material by knocking off the opposition’s pieces. The pride in either isn’t that of the bloodshed it represents. It’s pride at getting knowledgeable enough about a gameplay system that you understand it faster and translate that understanding into creative play.

Movie adaptations of video games often think they’re adapting the bloodshed or the violence. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of a player’s experience. What’s being adapted is the creative experience that results from the player agency that video games as a medium uniquely provide.

Adapting games to films and series needs to reflect these experiences. “Arcane” takes its time showing you a space, how it moves, and how its characters move through, see, and hear it – the same thing players directly connect with when they play a game. That echoes the agency to explore space. Its characters bicker about teammates’ capabilities and what role they can play, echoing the same MOBA element. Initial conflicts are told through sacrifice or running away, reflecting the strategic nature of engagement in a game like “League of Legends”.

When video games are adapted to films or series, they don’t need to be faster or more brutal or anything like that. They need to be like “Arcane”, focused on how characters each understand and move through a space, and by extension how different characters each come to understand the larger world that opens.

I don’t come to “League of Legends” with any knowledge of its lore. I do know it features more than 140 characters, each with their own backstories, each of which threads through the backstories of multiple other characters. That paints an intricate world full of conflicting motivations. The days of dismissing video games as narratively simple are over when many paint some of the most detailed worlds in any medium. You can feel “Arcane” take all these things seriously, as a real adaptation of a complex world told through various perspectives. There’s a genuine care in how this story is told, the kind of care we’re used to seeing when a cherished novel is adapted.

We’ve seen enough bad adaptations of video games to know by now that the same care, effort, and precision that makes any other kind of adaptation good is also needed here. In the first three episodes of “Arcane” that are now available, we finally get to see what that approach delivers, and it’s staggeringly beautiful.

The first three hourlong episodes of “Arcane” are available on Netflix. The second three will arrive on Saturday, November 13, and the final three on Saturday, November 20.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

The Sorcerer Detective We Need — “Trese”

As I started watching “Trese”, I immediately became worried. It paints its world broadly. The titular Trese tells us who she is a few times in a row in case we missed it. The animation obviously doesn’t have the largest budget. The supernatural “case a week” genre feels overdone by this point. Then Trese steps on the gas. Literally, at one point.

The minute the action happens it all starts to click. Disparate elements fall into place smoothly. Alexandra Trese cuts through monsters from the underworld at lightning pace, but not in a flashy, overstated way. She can take advantage of various magical powers and spells, but each of these is limited. It usually comes down to her and a knife that can harm monsters out of Filipino legend and myth.

Trese is a lakan for humanity, a leader and sorcerer tasked with maintaining peace between humans and a hidden underworld of mythological creatures. She alternates between investigating cases and kicking ass. She has a host of supernatural contacts, some explained and some not. One exchanges information for candy and, perhaps, simply because it’s fun. Others mix information with misinformation. Some respect an old balance between humans and underworld clans that Trese is solely empowered to maintain. Some seek to overthrow those agreements.

Neither is Trese a desperate vigilante. She follows a set of rules agreed upon between a council of underworld leaders. Some trust her, some fear her, some are simply betting for or against her. Many don’t like that she wields such power, or that she’s the one who’s upholding the balance after the death of her father.

She doesn’t protect humanity without question, though. A police friend often calls her in on supernatural cases, but corrupt officials and police are as much of an obstacle for her as any monster from the underworld.

Let’s go back to that action for a second. “Trese” takes advantage of its budget limitations. The whole thing feels animated on the off-beats, in other words at 12 frames-per-second in a style that values the intimation of movement over actual movement. It’s hard to get right. We’ve seen this recently in a big-budget animated film like “Into the Spider-Verse”, but the way “Trese” does it is reminiscent of one of the only animated projects even more hallowed: “Batman: The Animated Series”.

The more obvious comparison that every show like this gets might be “Supernatural”, but “Trese” is pretty far afield from that. Trese is a detective at work, hard-nosed and extremely serious, and the series leans far more into a noir-horror atmosphere. It’s also about the work of doing the job at hand; there’s almost no interpersonal drama. That Filipino myths haven’t really been featured in storytelling that’s made it to the U.S. also helps “Trese” feel unique to a viewer like me.

That’s about more than something simply coming from a foreign place. Horror often draws on myth that’s been built and retold for hundreds of years. American horror only has a few hundred years to draw on. During most of that time, it’s relied on racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism. As it’s forced to rely on those themes less and less, there’s really not much of a historical well left to draw from.

Horror from the U.S. goes a few different directions at this point. To do anything else, it needs to start inventing horror out of religious concerns, or more often co-opts horror from indigenous or exterior cultures in a way that often misunderstands it and strips it of the context that makes it frightening and meaningful. When horror from the U.S. is successful, it’s very often a meta commentary that corrects or critiques a past failure of American horror – think “You’re Next” and its inversion of the home invasion horror, or “It Follows” and how effectively it toys with sexual awakening horror.

It’s not just that Filipino folklore feels unique and different because we haven’t been exposed to it much here. It’s also that it feels different in “Trese” because it’s being told by Filipino creators and actors in a Filipino world that keeps the context of all that folklore intact. It hasn’t been adapted and stripped of what makes it unique. That is something we’re not very used to getting in the U.S.

I want to stress it’s not the style and content that remind me of “Batman: The Animated Series”. It’s the fights and pacing that do. “Trese” follows a solid pace of: she meets with her police contact, picks up the case, gathers evidence, follows a lead, talks to an informant, connects evidence to that information, tracks down where she needs to be, prepares for shit to go down, chaos ensues. That is, to a tee, the pace of any Batman-centered episode of “Batman: The Animated Series”.

That’s not really unique to those two series. A lot of series do this. What’s unique to them is that they both do it so well. It’s difficult to pull off because it’s a very streamlined approach. It requires the central character to be a complete and consistent anchor for a viewer’s trust. It also means that every interview with an informant or witness needs to be unexpected and tense. That requires an absolutely elite rogues gallery of unexpected characters and spaces in which to meet them. “Trese” has that in spades.

The setting needs to drip with so much atmosphere that you develop a sense for what you might see, hear, and feel off-screen. “Trese” can be a little inconsistent on this element at the beginning of some episodes, but the more she has to leave the mundane behind, it escalates into some superbly intriguing places.

The other part of this is that every time the chaos starts, there has to be something so strange and unexpected that it suspends your disbelief that the hero can handle it. Sometimes they don’t, and the solution is just as unexpected as the problem. Sometimes the hero is just a witness, the clean-up, a second too late in understanding something key. Someone gets away. A villain can only be warned, not stopped.

This adherence to story progression at a certain pace might seem strict, but it necessitates so much creativity within those strict spaces. You know the shape of the storytelling space every single time. What you don’t know is what’s going to be inside it. That carries its own intrigue and anticipation. You know how the story’s going to go, you probably know who’ll be standing at the end, but you don’t know everything you’ll see along the way, or what more you’ll understand about the world by that point.

“Trese” isn’t without flaws. The larger story arc to the season itself can slow down when an explanation is at hand, but it’s bolstered by a series of flashbacks strung as episode prologues through most of the season. This history builds Trese as a character for us, and into one of my favorite characters going in a series right now. Those flashbacks shape the larger arc, but they also shape our understanding of Trese, the accords she protects, the people around her, and the world we’re stepping into.

I mentioned at the beginning that the writing is often broad. Dialogue can feel generic in places. I think it works for the most part because we’re hearing those familiar phrases between characters such as a horselike god who disguises himself as a car and a sorcerer detective who kickboxes ghouls. The broadness of the dialogue is noticeable at times, but it also does a lot to ground us in the middle of so many other elements that are unfamiliar.

The more intimate fight scenes play best – a fight in a warehouse or restaurant, stalking through an abandoned studio. The larger a fight gets, the more it can get away from Trese as our anchor within it. This starts to involve powerful creatures and magic spells more, which is exciting but also feels more ordinary in a superhero-saturated market. It’s those more personal conflicts in tighter spaces that really escalate characters’ motives, talents, and tactics.

“Trese” is a good series. I don’t know if it’s a great series, but it’s great at all the things I want a series like this to do. Where it falters, it has enough built up around it to carry that moment through and still make it matter. I never felt my investment in these characters waning, and I was always engrossed in the world it depicts. In particular, Trese as a character quickly goes from a no-nonsense private eye archetype into being one of the more believably complex leads I’ve seen in an animation – not because she changes, but because the series catches us up with her complicated history.

One tip when you watch it: don’t skip the intro. The opening credits are genius. They house you within the show’s mood immediately. The visuals and music are fused perfectly. The opening carries both a sense of threat and enigmatic beauty that got me settled in the exact mindset I wanted to be in to enjoy each episode. I watched the opening credits every time, and I’m glad I did.

“Trese” is both ambitious and imperfect. It can take a minute to understand and sync into its pace and animation style. Once it gets going, though, it is beautifully unique and exciting.

Just as importantly, it fixes a problem in the genre. Many supernatural shows like this have worlds that are wishy-washy and fungible and chiefly exist to bring out the characters’ charm and wit, which in turn can make thin characters who feel less consistent over time.

“Trese” is a story that’s fully intact with its world, and grounded to Trese’s experiences. It’s not piecemeal, and for how structured it is, it doesn’t feel episodic. Instead, it feels like visits to a place, like uncovering a story as you read more, anticipating the next chapter. It asks us to learn about it as we go, which is what a supernatural show housed in mystery should do. Moments should be awe-inspiring, profound, intimidating, and Trese’s knowledge about these things should be impressive. The answers aren’t readily served to us, they’re caught up with – sometimes before we fully understand them. That’s the kind of exciting supernatural show I want, and that’s what “Trese” does best over its six half-hour episodes.

You can watch “Trese” on Netflix.

What’s Exchanged in Shattering — “Land of the Lustrous”

I keep thinking of what I could say that does justice to “Land of the Lustrous”. Words and phrases like “staggeringly beautiful” and “bewildering” come to mind. So do “lonesome” and “heartache”. The 2017 anime series is an artistic masterpiece and a technological breakthrough, but those feel like the least important aspects of its storytelling.

Sometimes you find on a sculpture the sign of the hands that made it. It could be an indentation, a furrow, a ripple of sinew, a smoothness where someone else would leave it rough. What those marks represent tells you where that sculptor wants you to focus, on how they want you to identify with a character. There are rare pieces of art where – days later – you consider your emotions and you still recognize the indentations a story has made in you, the furrow that it’s molded in how you even feel a feeling. That’s what “Land of the Lustrous” can do. What words are there for that?

I think the most important thing to say is this: I was ready to turn “Land of the Lustrous” off after two episodes. I wasn’t sure whether I’d keep watching. This is because I misinterpreted what it is. “Land of the Lustrous” fosters this misinterpretation so that it can turn it upside down inside you.

Let’s start from the beginning. Adapted from a manga by Haruko Ichikawa, “Land of the Lustrous” takes place in a post-apocalypse. Humans went extinct, but it’s been long enough afterward that all signs of previous civilization are gone. Entire new geological eras have taken place. The world is lush grasslands and vibrant seashores. It’s not dire or extinct; it’s full of life.

The Lustrous are immortal beings created from gemstones. It’s not that their heart is a gemstone or they carry some magical gemstone within them. They are entirely created – head to toe – out of gemstone. Each character is composed of a different gemstone. Those who are more brittle can shatter if they fall over. Those who are harder can fight in battle. Microscopic organisms inside them constitute their sentience and memory. If one shatters and can’t recover a piece, they lose a part of their memory and knowledge.

The Lustrous are hunted by the Lunarians, moon dwellers who erupt massive armies from the sky at a moment’s notice. The Lunarians use the Lustrous in their jewelry. Though their armies are usually defeated, it seems they have numbers to spare. They’ll sacrifice hundreds just to shatter and collect a single Lustrous – and the Lustrous only number 28.

Lunarians attack in Land of the Lustrous

Phosphophyllite – or Phos for short – is naive, privileged, and impressionable. They’re the youngest of the Lustrous at 300 years old. Among the most brittle of the gems, they’ve resigned themself to being useless. Phos can’t fight, and they have no role such as other non-fighters have, like doctor, designer, or academic. They can’t find a purpose and are decidedly noncommittal even when they’re assigned one.

The characters are androgynous, but it took me a while to pick up on this – they’re animated tall and lanky, often with traditionally femme-presenting hairstyles and clothes, and they’re all voiced by women. That is, all but Kongo, their creator and leader. The effect is one of a school of young women being led by a man who created them and is worshiped by them. Most of them are somewhat impressionable and excitable. This is what first gave me pause.

Despite being hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, many of the Lustrous often read as child-like. There are stories from every culture that misuse or abuse this trope. It takes a minute for you to start suspecting that this is the point, that the series wants you to be uncomfortable with this and question whether this is an intentional aspect of the Lustrous’ creation or even a willful choice that’s reinforced in their culture so as to hide from a truth no one wants answered. Certainly, many of the Lustrous do act more like adults. They’re the ones least connected to the rest.

The English translation uses the gender-neutral singular “they” to refer to the Lustrous. The original Japanese refers to them using a pronoun that’s similar to “he” but that I’m given to understand still reflects an ambiguous or somewhat gender-neutral aspect. There is no concept of gender among the Lustrous themselves.

(Others with far more knowledge on the show’s intersection of queer and Japanese cultural aspects have written on it, and they open a window into further elements of the show I have less ability to speak on. They contain spoilers, but if you want to read up on the presentation of queerness in “Land of the Lustrous” try: Sy Fy Wire’s “The Audacious Queerness of ‘Land of the Lustrous’” and Anime Feminist’s “Mangaka Ichikawa Haruko and the beautiful horror of growth”).

My initial hesitation had to do strictly with how characters might be read as feminine and childlike, worshiping a patriarch, and the potential problems that reside within this – before understanding that the series itself wants you to question the nature of that system.

The other half of my initial hesitation was Phos themself. It’s difficult to create stories around someone who is uninterested in their own story. That’s where the body horror element of “Land of the Lustrous” comes in. Minor spoilers, but by the second episode, Phos is swallowed by a large snail and starts to dissolve in its digestive acids.

It’s this body horror element that reveals what “Land of the Lustrous” truly is. Watch the Japanese trailer (I’ll post an English one at the bottom of the article), and it looks like a pleasant looking anime battler with impressive design and some humor.

Yet in the first episode, we meet a social outcast who wants to die. Cinnabar is poisonous to the other Lustrous and can’t come close to them. Cinnabar lives in self-exile and patrols during the night, when Lunarians are loathe to appear.

Phos themself increasingly becomes obsessed with self harm. If they can replace enough of their body with other materials and alloys, they’ll lose memory of who they are and become someone else – perhaps someone more useful. The course they pursue becomes altogether Faustian in nature.

The Lunarians inflict a toll as well. Characters are lost and pieces of who a character is are lost – there’s no gore to the characters shattering, none of the shock/revulsion that some filmmakers attempt to turn into titillation. There’s just a person who is, and then isn’t. It feels like a more honest portrayal of death and its shock to the living than a thousand more realistic depictions.

By the end of the 12-episode first season, what initially might seem like a quirky battler with school-plot humor becomes a magical realist meditation on the relationship between trauma and resistance. With some spoilers that won’t mean much without context, this fan compilation of shots describes the melancholic beauty and stark tone of the latter half of the season better than the official trailers do:

I almost turned the show off after two episodes because I couldn’t quite match the humor, fight scenes, and the show’s penchant for quiet introspection and self-analysis. It was this last – often in moments of threat or loss – that finally made me pay attention and start understanding it better. There are surreal moments of memories and trauma relived, and it’s within trying to understand the world and one’s own nature that the show excels.

This introspection often veers straight into magical realism: A character questions their usefulness in society as they’re absorbed into a snail. They lose their memories and create space for new ones as parts of them are lost and replaced. Ice floes naturally shape into monuments to long-dead sinners, shrieking as they pass each other, echoing your subconscious thoughts back to you as you as temptations. A character stands unmoving for days on end in one place hoping to speak with an enemy, becoming covered in butterflies as they wait. The show is filled with awe-inspiring, magical realist ideas and frustrated, lonely, sometimes silly people doing their best to make sense of their place in such a world.

I’m not the most avid anime viewer. It’s one of many things I watch, but it’s not a primary focus. I try to find room for what looks interesting or unique, but there’s a lot of anime that passes me by. I know enough to recognize this isn’t the first anime to combine some of these elements – while “Land of the Lustrous” ultimately falls very far from the magical girl genre, I can’t help but think of “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”. It was a revolution in taking tired magical girl tropes and introducing aspects of cosmic horror, PTSD, and – in its case – contemporary art. The two shows both center on Faustian bargains in order to take on a role that protects society, a role characters can only begin to question once they’re fulfilling it.

“Land of the Lustrous” is without a doubt in my mind the best anime series I’ve seen since “Mushi-Shi”. What does that mean from someone who isn’t an expert in anime? I can’t tell you. But why compare it only to other anime? The single season that’s out now is one of the best seasons of any show that I’ve seen. The way its deeper-and-deeper world-building is slowly revealed is unique. It finds overwhelming beauty and calm in the stillness between moments of trauma. The Buddhist cosmic horror of the Lunarians is presented with a peace and silence that becomes far more frightening than the loud, gurgling, dark, and oozing horrors I’m used to seeing in other shows and movies.

What “Land of the Lustrous” does that’s almost impossible to do, that is a rare and complicated feat in storytelling, is it evolves the viewer’s understanding of its world in perfect time with a character’s own. The psychology of Phos’s character, at first so innocuous and simplistic, becomes utterly involved, complex, and heartbreaking. Phos is so convinced that they’ll fail that they constantly self-sabotage. Others die because of it, but Phos is always protected from carrying that burden themself because others think that Phos can’t handle it. The desire to be useful drives Phos to wild extremes. Yet the social determination that they’ll always be so useless that they shouldn’t even carry the burden of their mistakes is what makes Phos so desperate in the first place.

Butterflies land on Phos in Land of the Lustrous

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character evolve so much, in such an earned way, in as brief a time as twelve 20-some minute episodes. This is what makes “Land of the Lustrous” leave its mark on you. It has impressive anime battles that are stunning to look at, but it’s not really a battler. It has plenty of humor, and a surprising amount of dry humor laced throughout otherwise serious moments, but it’s certainly not a comedy. It has plentiful discovery of its intricate world-building without ever being a straight-ahead fantasy.

“Land of the Lustrous” is, at its core, a psychological portrayal of one character in a world built from metaphor. Few pieces of art have managed to leave this profound an emotional mark on me. I don’t find myself often leaning forward in my seat, but there were many moments in later episodes that saw me do this. One was a surprisingly tense chase scene; the rest were almost all moments in Phos’s psychology, where who they were and who they’d decide to be rested on a very fine balance.

There are some works of art that are masterpieces, that have such command over their medium that they guide you through every moment and perception with unfaltering sureness. There are other works of art that I often find more interesting – these are more ambitious. They’re usually too messy in everything they want to speak about to be as fine and controlled as masterpieces. And sometimes, very rarely, you find both of those aspects in one work of art. They are messy and ambitious and somehow find that sure-footedness in something that seems like it should be desperately uncontrolled. They don’t just guide you, they guide you through chaos. “Land of the Lustrous” is utterly thick with metaphor. It builds a world from things that are nearly impossible to build worlds from.

If you asked me to describe the show in a sentence, it’s this: It centers on the psychology of a magically real amnesiac, trying to find a role in a critically flawed society, amid the threat of Buddhist cosmic horrors, half-remembering trauma in fits of surrealism.

This shouldn’t work. That it does, and it does so well boils my brain down to those hyperbolic phrases of criticism you’re never supposed to use: Staggeringly beautiful. Bewildering. Masterpiece. Heartbreak. Awe.

“Land of the Lustrous” is currently available in the U.S. through Amazon Prime. I watched the subtitled version, which I recommend in particular for Tomoyo Kurosawa’s constantly evolving but anchored Japanese voice performance as Phos. Reading a bit on other viewers’ experiences shows the dubbed version is also well regarded.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

A Space to Safely Break Your Heart — “I Lost My Body”

There’s a stillness that comes with having seen a movie that’s impossible in the right way. It changes the shape of the day, it brings a thousand thoughts stocked across weeks and years flooding back to you. “I Lost My Body” makes you miss the people who you love. Perhaps they’re near. Perhaps they’ve passed away. Perhaps you loosed them from your life because the damage and pain they caused was too great. It’s easy to think of some with love. It’s difficult to think of others that way.

Sometimes a piece of art can shear away the complications and give you permission to miss. “I Lost My Body” is a space that feels deeply cared for and protected, where you can simply let your heart break because it’s safe to do so.

How does it do this? It’s an animated French film about a severed hand that’s been separated from its body. The hand goes on a journey and remembers the life it led. That sounds horrific. At times it is, but not because the hand is repulsive. It’s actually got a lot of personality. It’s horrific when the hand is threatened or takes a risk, such as an early encounter with hungry rats. Other moments in its journey are touching and even transcendent. They often mirror events that led it here.

The films that make us sad often hollow us out. They make us feel a loss or an emptiness. They ask us to attach and emotionally invest and connect, and then make us feel pain at severing us from what we care about. They give us sentiment and then yank it away.

There’s nothing wrong with that in storytelling, but we often feel that it’s the only way to explore sadness. It’s the chief way sadness and loss are presented in our movies. “I Lost My Body” does something far different. It fills us up. It reminds us of the times we felt whole with something we’ve since lost. Sometimes we felt whole even as the world around us felt empty. It reminds us of the value of that connection, even if it’s gone now. It puts into stark relief the ways we’ve learned to feel whole since.

“I Lost My Body” is about dissatisfaction and discontentment. It engages feeling lost, passed over, just trying to find some room to feel valued in a job, home, life, city, entire world that doesn’t care about you. It does this very quietly at times. The hand’s exciting journeys are alternated with its memories of Naoufel (Hakim Faris), the protagonist to whom it was once belonged.

One of the films it most reminds me of is Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood” – another French movie that was among the best of its year. Naoufel tries to live inside the quiet underbelly of everyone else’s louder lives – except in moments where he has to rebel against it.

Not all the reactions to this are healthy. There is a point in the film where I was worried it would romanticize stalking. And though Naoufel romanticizes it, the film itself doesn’t. It doesn’t give it a pass, which I was relieved to see. Is it handled perfectly? It’s hard to say, because the characters in the film don’t handle it perfectly. It feels like one of the more realistic representations in terms of the fallout from stalking. It is addressed and the film doesn’t pretend there’s a balm or fix for it.

One of the more interesting things that comes out of this is that Naoufel is often a jerk. He’s a nice guy and we feel for him because his life is painful. He’s also exploring being a “nice guy” who feels his repression justifies entitlement to someone else. While he’s been through trauma, that’s no excuse. It is a reason, as a viewer, to want to see him figure out how to be better since you feel that he can.

The other comparison is more stylistic. The quiet moments in “I Lost My Body” involve long takes of vast cities presented as if their features have character and purpose. These are often evocative of “Blade Runner” and “Ghost in the Shell”. The story is centered on magical realism and metaphor. It’s not sci-fi or cyberpunk at all, but it shares much of the sense of presenting a city – the small moments of possibility that can still be created in a landscape that’s vast, insurmountable, and unfeeling. There’s a sense of personal geography and the ability to change small things within a city that’s too vast and perpetual to know.

Sitting apart from the film, thinking about it brings a sense of longing – not for anything lost, but for the way of feeling loss that it elicits. The way we tell stories, it often feels rare to be fond of what we’ve lost, to feel close to it, to recognize how it stitches who you were into who you are.

It’s rare to be at peace with loss instead of at war against it. We’re taught to fight loss and fight the feeling of it, and those can be valuable tools. Yet there are so few lessons in learning what to do after, how to be content with ourselves in the presence of loss, how not to damage others because of it. “I Lost My Body” gives us both a path to consider these things, and a safe space to feel them even as you watch.

“I Lost My Body” is available on Netflix in the U.S. Be aware that the film isn’t appropriate for kids. It may be animated, but it’s not a children’s movie.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “I Lost My Body” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Victoire Du Bois voices Gabrielle. Myriam Loucif voices Naoufel’s mother. There are also fleeting characters, such as a mother putting her child to bed and Gabrielle’s fellow librarian who plays a supporting part.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. Gabrielle and her co-librarian share a few words.

3. About something other than a man?

No.

The cast of characters is very limited, but that’s no reason it couldn’t have done a better job here. Even in the spare moments that two women interact, it’s about Naoufel.

Much of the film is framed around the hand’s experiences: memories of the past when it was attached, as well as events it observes or influences in the present when it’s free of its body. This isn’t much of a defense either.

One might argue that Naoufel’s exposure to almost entirely men in his daily life creates unrealistic and toxic expectations he places on himself. While this is a part of the film, it’s touched on as a texture and environment more than treated as a focus. It’s a foundational aspect to Naoufel’s character, and that’s important, but it’s not a theme that’s explored.

While “I Lost My Body” is ultimately responsible with its portrayal of stalking as creepy and not romantic, it takes a minute to get there. I’ve been stalked to the point where I’ve had to coordinate with security at events, but it is different in many ways for a man to be stalked, so I also don’t know how far my judgment of the film’s responsibility with this part of the story should extend. There might be an element or experience here that I might not be able to speak to, or that makes its handling or consequences less complete than I perceive. There’s no violence involved with this element of the story, but it still may be triggering for some viewers.

Women are treated essentially secondary in the story, and that’s a problem. We may be focusing on Naoufel’s experiences and life, but woodshop owner Gigi gets consideration that even Gabrielle doesn’t – and she has far more screen time than he does.

I do feel the film is exceptionally worthwhile – maybe even the best of the year – but that doesn’t magically excuse it from a problem that it has.

The feature image is from an interview with director Jeremy Clapin on That Shelf here.

Full Review: “Inside Out” Ranks Among Pixar’s Best

Inside Out Sadness and Joy
via Collider

by Gabriel Valdez

#Note: I’m still writing for AC, but I’ll be focusing more on social and political commentary there, so more of my movie reviews will be appearing in full on this website again, starting with this one:

There’s a famous montage in Pixar’s Up that tells the life story of a man and woman, from their meeting as children to his losing her of old age. It never fails to draw tears from any viewer.

Imagine zooming in on that montage and watching a briefer piece of it. It has the same effect for viewers, but the story’s in much more detail. This is what happens in Inside Out, which many are calling a return to form for the studio that created Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Toy Story, and Wall-E. I’ll go one step further: this is one of Pixar’s best films. Inside Out meets and perhaps even surpasses some of the movies I just listed.

Pixar always has a way of getting at the emotions housed inside of certain stages of life. Here, those emotions become characters. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust operate 11 year-old Riley’s brain. Joy (Amy Poehler) runs the crew because up until now, everything has gone pretty well having a childhood focused on happiness.

But Riley’s family is moving from the open, rural wilds of Minnesota to the cramped confines of San Francisco. This coincides with Joy and Sadness getting swept out of headquarters, leaving only Anger, Fear, and Disgust to cope with being the new kid at school, figuring out the new town, and trying out for the local hockey team.

Inside Out Riley looking scared
via Pixar Post

We see glimpses of Riley’s life, particularly in how her relationship with her parents worsens. Most of the film focuses on Joy and Sadness’s journey back to headquarters, through places like Long-term Memory, Imaginationland, and even Dream Productions.

By speaking about the imaginary things we lose and by focusing on the tug-of-war between Sadness and Joy, Inside Out actually begins to recall the bittersweet messages of 80s fantasies like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, or The Last Unicorn. Those were films that dealt with the loss of childhood and innocence in a similar way: by threatening the metaphorical with real repercussions. Although the style is completely different, Inside Out has many moments that would fit very neatly into those films, including a few that may make you cry. The 60 year-old biker with the tattoos and motorcycle jacket to my right cried. The six year-old and his mother to my left cried. I cried.

Inside Out works. It really, really works because it feels like the rare film that arrives straight from a storyteller’s heart. That Riley is compellingly realized, that it’s filled with slapstick humor, that the animation is filled with color and imagination – these are delightful bonuses. At its core, Inside Out could work without any of them, and it could do so better than any other Pixar movie. I won’t call it the best of their films – I’m not sure that it is. I will call it their most honest one.

In part, this is because Inside Out takes place on a much smaller scale than most Pixar films. It’s not humanity that’s at stake, or even a loved one’s life. All that’s at stake is the emotional wholeness of a young woman. And yet, directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen give those stakes more importance, tension, and emotional impact than all the worlds that have been saved this summer put together.

Inside Out Fear Joy and Disgust
via Collider

Is Pixar back? That’s a silly question; they never left. When most major studios have two or three subpar films in a row, it’s called a rough month. Since Pixar only makes a feature film every year or two, what would be the blink of an eye for most studios is for Pixar turned into a narrative about how far they’ve diminished.

Call Inside Out what you like – a recovery, a comeback, a return to form. Just make sure you call it a masterpiece.

It’s a great film for kids, especially because it doesn’t shy away from the kind of complex, emotionally involved storytelling that kids really do love. Sometimes we simplify children’s stories much more than we have to. We underestimate just how invested they can become in a movie that demands their full attention. Oftentimes, they’re even better at it than adults are – they don’t have to break through walls of cynicism to treat what’s happening on-screen as important. Inside Out puts faith in children’s ability to comprehend what’s at stake. It also speaks to the way children analyze emotions and deal with the world around them.

Adults will be taken back to emotional struggles we had at that age and – let’s face it – sometimes still experience. Children will get the first film in a long time that treats their emotions as something complex and worth talking about. And it all happens in a colorful, energetic cartoon that may be Pixar’s funniest yet.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

1. Does Inside Out have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Riley is voiced by Kaitlyn Dias and her mother is voiced by Diane Lane. Joy is voiced by Amy Poehler, Sadness is voiced by Phyllis Smith, and Disgust is voiced by Mindy Kaling. A variety of other characters and their emotions are voiced by Paula Poundstone, Paula Pell, Rashida Jones, and a sizable supporting cast of professional women voice actors.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. There are some hilarious moments when boys and men are discussed by emotions, but aside from that it’s really all about the women. It’s a credit to lead screenwriter Meg LeFauve (Josh Cooley and Pete Docter also contributed) that each of the women in this film seems whole. Even the emotional homunculi (the characters inside Riley’s head) who are portrayed by women are more than simple caricatures.

I can’t speak to many experiences or pressures as a young woman growing up that this film may address. I can say that Riley and her emotions are some of the most fleshed out characters that Pixar has put to film, and it manages this through more than just the dialogue. Not only is the screenplay incredibly layered, but the animation is nuanced enough to ask you to read each character on multiple levels.

I also appreciate that Riley is a complex character. This takes place with surface elements: she dreams about unicorns and she kicks butt at hockey. It also takes place on a number of deeper levels: Riley struggles with her own emotions but can occasionally manage those of her parents in ways that defuse their loss of emotional control. She has expectations and struggles with anger when those expectations aren’t met. She can revert into her own private world. She is caught in the midst of becoming more independent. This is a complex portrayal of a young woman, which is something we don’t get to see very often on film.