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Fall 2023 – Week 11 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I am suffering under the weight of an illness that I’m hoping against hope isn’t COVID, and can only pray you’re all having a much easier time of it this December. Fortunately, I’ve stacked up so many film and series screenings over the past few weeks that our reviews are under no threat of abating; in fact, I’ve actually increased my review buffer substantially, while continuing my march through the year’s most noteworthy animated offerings. This week I finished off Pluto and immediately dove into Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, a show which took the inherently inessential nature of a Scott Pilgrim adaptation and turned it into a proud statement of purpose. I’ll have more to say on Scott next week, but for now, let’s run down Pluto and some fresh seasonal offerings in the Week in Review!

With Christmas nearly upon us, my house has been celebrating the season with some exceedingly variable holiday films. The first of these was Dashing Through The Snow, in which Ludacris stars as a father who’s hated Christmas ever since the holiday seemingly instigated his parents’ divorce. His holiday animosity is tested when he and his daughter end up stumbling across the real Santa Claus (Lil Rel Howery), leading into a rambling adventure taking them across most of downtown Atlanta.

And yes, I’m aware that plot description didn’t really suggest any meaningful conflict or narrative hook. That’s really the main issue with Dashing Through The Snow, which is largely constructed out of disconnected sequences of Ludacris and Lil Rel Howery bickering while Ludacris’ daughter mugs for the camera. “Ludacris and Howery take a disjointed drive around Atlanta” is a fairly thin scaffolding for a Christmas feature, and the fact that Ludacris isn’t really a professional actor only exacerbates the film’s problems. Howery’s a funny guy, but he’s given absolutely nothing to work with here; even as a background feature, Dashing Through The Snow still feels insufficiently Christmasy to be worth a viewing.

Fortunately, our Christmas spirits were rallied by the far superior Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. The film stars Forest Whitaker as the brilliant inventor Jeronicus Jangle, renowned worldwide for his delightful children’s toys. However, when his book of inventions is stolen by his apprentice Gustafson (Keegan Michael-Key), he is unable to regain his spark, ultimately losing his wife and turning away from his daughter. Thirty years down the line, he works as a curmudgeonly pawnbroker in the building where he once constructed marvels – until his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) arrives for a holiday visit, precipitating a grand and festive adventure.

Jingle Jangle’s origins as a proposed stage play are clear in its delightfully ornate costuming and set design. Each scene glimmers with details marrying Christmas staples to steampunk-adjacent clockwork toys, and Whitaker entirely disappears into the role of Jeronicus Jangle. I’m used to the man projecting confidence and self-control, but here he is all nerves and regrets, speaking softly and bearing the weight of a wasted life on his back. His performance offers the film a gravity that is gracefully softened by the chipper passion of Mills and manic intensity of Michael-Key; really, everyone is perfectly cast here, fitting together as neatly as Jeronicus’ clockwork marvels.

Oh, and it’s a musical! And the songs are actually really good! Jingle Jangle offers an eclectic and accomplished variety of musical setpieces, its tunes ranging in genre and gracefully avoiding Christmas tune cliché. All that plus an unusually sharp-edged exploration of potential and regret make for an altogether superior Christmas feature, a holiday feature with emotional weight and riches to spare.

Our next viewing was Jawan, the latest action vehicle for Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. In fact, Jawan is enough film for two Shah Rukh Khans, with him starring in a double role as a betrayed commando and that commando’s jail warden son Azad, who must team up to face the corruption throttling their society. What follows ranges from noble Robin Hood heists to brutal gunfights, as Azad employs his Charlie’s Angels-style team of inmates to enforce justice in an unjust world.

Jawan is exuberant, indulgent, and extremely entertaining, a film where every punch and bullet rings with the validation of civil corruption being dramatically redressed. Each of its major sequences doubles as an engaging thriller setpiece (train holdup! Prison invasion!) and a searing political indictment, as a parade of villains are made accountable to the people they allegedly serve. And of course, Khan’s unimpeachable charisma keeps the film light in spite of its often heavy subject matter, with both father and son serving as gallant heroes of the people in their own ways.

Splitting Khan between two roles basically allows him to play two of his classic archetypes in the same film. While Azad comes across as conflicted and soulful in his fight for justice, his father is pure action star indulgence, obliterating foes with an easy grace and a cigar perpetually dangling from his lips. The film’s energy dips a touch for the somewhat convoluted explanation of Azad’s childhood, but the constant twists, dynamic combat choreography, and consistency of fist-pumping oligarch takedowns ensure it remains an engaging, feel-good picture right through the end.

Alongside all the feature films, I also continued my charge through 2023’s impressive slate of top shelf anime, munching through the adaptation of Naoki Urusawa’s Pluto with all possible haste. The manga and show are themselves a reinterpretation of Astro Boy’s “The Greatest Robot on Earth” arc, wherein the seven most powerful robots find themselves hunted and destroyed one by one. By framing this story from the perspective of detective robot Gesicht, Urusawa shifts Tezuka’s narrative into his own thriller wheelhouse, while also positioning it as a direct commentary on the war in Iraq. Of course, America’s colonial ambitions are a shamefully timeless topic of inquiry; though it felt ripped from the headlines back in the ‘00s, Urusawa’s story feels just as relevant to the massacres we’re funding today.

Like Urusawa’s original manga, Pluto’s adaptation is stately and reserved, prioritizing consistency of aesthetic and character acting over wild feats of animated expression. Nonetheless, it’s still littered with preposterous feats of animation, ranging from vivid expressions of close combat to beautiful articulations of storms in motion, with only the occasional misguided implementation of CG drawing it back to earth. There is simply no one who animates like Shinya Ohira, and it’s a delight seeing his skills applied to such worthy source material.

As for the actual story, Pluto embodies Urusawa’s knack for rising from cliché into profound emotional catharsis, layering one vignette on another until their collective impact rings like the bells of a grand cathedral. Simple component pieces like “the combat robot who finds solace in music” are stacked alongside variable human expressions of post-war trauma, with the question of “can a robot learn to be human” swiftly feeling tawdry and irrelevant. Can anyone who has experienced war maintain their humanity, or are we doomed to perpetuate cycles of grief and resentment, driven by our scars as unerringly as any robot might follow their programming? Or is that itself the essence of humanity – our ability to express our pain outwards, through grief and hatred?

Urusawa often paints in broad strokes, but nonetheless conveys thematic ambiguity through iteration, each new variation on his narratives adding fresh wrinkles to his intent. Through half a dozen variations on grief and renewal, he explores manifold ways that “humanity” can be lost or regained, and how humanist intentions can be corrupted through either personal or institutional manipulation. Through his array of sympathetic and doomed characters, he establishes a sense of resentment in the audience as well the characters, tasking us with the same burden of forgiveness he asks of his heroes. Narrative details wind through mystery and lock securely into thematic intent, with easy layups like the nearsightedness of American empire or cyclical nature of revenge ultimately proving themselves mere scaffolding, stepping stones on the way to less obvious questions regarding the application of justice and sanctity of life. Biting, far-reaching, and skillfully realized, Pluto is on the whole a nearly perfect show.

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