Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)

The recent Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a rousing success with both audiences and professional critics, so it’s natural that a subgenre of vintage television hagiographies would follow.  Chicken Soup for the Soul’s movie production wing has now entered the chat with an adaptation of the pop media history book Street Gang, which documents the early development & broadcast of the children’s education show Sesame Street.  Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor‘s museum tour through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a Wikipedia-in-motion recap of its show’s historic bullet points, underlined by a heartfelt nostalgia for its radical, politically pointed brand of Kindness in an era of constant political turmoil (the times, they aren’t a changin’ much).  As a history lesson, the film does a great job contextualizing Sesame Street‘s intent, execution, and impact through the 1970s and 80s; it efficiently packs a lot of background information into a relatively short runtime without overwhelming the audience.  As an emotional nostalgia trip, however, it never quite conjures the same magic as the Mister Rogers doc, which was largely popular because it could wring tears out of an unsuspecting audience like an old dishcloth.

As told here, Sesame Street started as a purely educational public service meant to enrich the lives of Inner-City Kids who were watching television for up to 60 hours a week, mostly alone while their parents worked.  Childhood psychology studies were conducted to parse out exactly what children paid attention to and retained from all that screentime, and how to make the most use out of that engagement.  It turned out commercial jingles for products like breakfast cereal & beer were the most resonant programming among the adolescent audience, so they designed a show that would “sell the alphabet to preschool children” as if it were a supermarket product.  Then, through the process of putting together a show aimed specifically at young urbanites, eccentric puppeteers like Jim Henson & Frank Oz were paired with Civil Rights activists & other Lefties to guide its creative vision, expanding its scope from educational jingles to an all-inclusive utopian vision of a world where “television loved people” instead of being outright hostile to them.  It’s a twisty journey from concept to screen with creative, political input from many, varied minds.  All that amounts to a fascinating history (which I assume is even more richly conveyed in the source material), but not necessarily an emotional gut punch.

Luckily, Sesame Street already has its own emotional gut punch documentary in the Carroll Spinney biography I Am Big Bird, which charts out the beloved puppeteer’s delicate psychological balance as expressed through both Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch.  If you’re looking for a good, wholesome cry, go there.  Because Steet Gang is spread out across so many collaborators and decades of backstory, it can’t possibly pack the same emotional wallop as the Fred Rogers or Caroll Spinney docs.  Between its praise for Spinney, Henson, Oz, songwriter Joe Raposo, and behind-the-scenes shot callers like Joan Ganz Cooney & Jon Stone, it’s reluctant to single out any one creative as responsible for the show’s magic, which makes for good journalism but shaky foundation for an emotional arc.  If there’s any core pathos to the story Street Gang tells, it’s in watching a group of young, fired-up artists & Leftists age into grumpy, burnt-out workaholics as the weekly workload of Sesame Street grinds their enthusiasm into dust.  For the most part, though, it’s just a warm bath of vintage television nostalgia that relies on feel-good throwback clips & behind-the-scenes insight to feel worthwhile.  And it works.  The expectation that these vintage TV docs emotionally destroy you is likely an unfair one; sometimes they’re just Nice.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

On a recent episode of the podcast, I found myself derailing a discussion of Toy Story 3 to complain about the bland, unimaginative sheen of mainstream computer animation, as pioneered by Pixar.  No matter how much admiration I could muster for the daringly morbid themes Toy Story 3 injected into the mold of a modern children’s film, I couldn’t help but be distracted by its autopilot visual aesthetic.  In the wake of Pixar’s resounding success with the Toy Story franchise (the first entirely computer-animated feature films in wide release), we’ve traded in the tactile charm of stop-motion animation and the expressive zeal of hand-drawn 2D illustrations (outside the few anime blockbusters that sneak into American distribution every year) for the least imaginative form of animation possible.  There are scenes in that Toy Story sequel where two characters are talking in close-up that are literally just a loose collection of vague colorful orbs and googly eyes, arranged in a shot/reverse-shot configuration.  It’s depressing to watch as an animation fan, especially since there are so few alternatives to the 3D computer animation approach Pixar has solidified as an industry standard.

During that tangent of old-man grumblings, I forgot to mention that there was a recent computer animated film that I found encouragingly expressive, turning my stubborn mind around about the general uselessness of the medium:  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  The offset screenprint aesthetic & psychedelic strobe light effects of Into the Spider-Verse were outright dazzling in the theater, whereas most modern children’s films just deploy their expressionless 3D orbs as vessels for hack jokes in celebrity voiceover.  I was reminded of my oversight in failing to single out Into the Spider-Verse as a sign of hope in an otherwise dire mainstream animation landscape while watching the newest release from the same animation wing at Sony, The Mitchells vs The Machines.  Also produced by beloved comedy nerds Phil Lord & Chris Miller (with major contributions from some of the folks behind Gravity Falls), The Mitchells vs The Machines repeats a lot of the same visual techniques that made Into the Spider-Verse such an industry standout in 2018.  It’s more heartwarming & cute than it is blindingly psychedelic, but it’s at least a promising sign that Into the Spider-Verse will not be left behind as a one-of-a-kind anomaly.  The current Pixar standard will not reign supreme forever.

It’s worth noting that The Mitchells vs The Machines meets me more than halfway in trying to work past my CG animation biases.  Not only is its teenage protagonist a nerdy cinephile (something I’m obviously guilty of), but her road trip adventure with her parents orbits around a technophobic distrust in modern, automated tech – falling within the confines of my love for Evil Technology movies that dutifully warn that the Internet is trying to kill us all.  On her way to freshmen orientation at film school, a movie-obsessed dork butts heads with her old-fashioned, tech-sceptical father, while her mother & brother struggle to keep the family’s final days as a unit as memorably pleasant as possible.  That central father-daughter rift is exponentially heightened by a sudden Robot Apocalypse, triggered by an over-ambitious Tech Bro (voiced by Eric Andre) whose willingness to give smartphones power over our daily lives gets way out of hand very quickly.  The movie does its best to temper this humans-vs-technology premise with some counterbalance positivity about the joys of the Internet (mostly in how it connects our cinephile hero to other likeminded weirdos across the country), but it mostly just chronicles a Bob’s Burgers style traditional family’s struggles to adjust to a rapidly automated, synthetic world ruled by laptops & smartphones.

While I’m not as breathlessly enthusiastic about The Mitchells vs The Machines as I was for Into the Spider-Verse, I am tickled that I have an example of a modern computer-animated film that both summates & subverts my skepticism over the technology of the artform.  The Luddite father character isn’t exactly a satirical punching bag in his stubbornness to adapt to modernity, but I did feel as if my unease with an increasingly computerized world (as opposed to the “authentic” world it has replaced) was being openly mocked through that surrogate.  I enjoyed being ribbed like that.  I could go on to complain about how the film’s most expressive, most exciting variations on the CG animation format were the traditional 2D illustrations doodled in its margins, if not only because we used to live in a world where we could have movies entirely animated in that style.  My nostalgia for older formats shouldn’t supersede what’s accomplished here as a shake-up in the medium, though.  This is an energetic, visually imaginative kids’ movie that pushes past the usual limitations of what most CG animated movies of its ilk attempt.  Not for nothing, it also gets online meme humor in a way most mainstream movies would fall on their face trying to emulate.  It’s a film firmly rooted in the language and the humor of a technological world it also thumbs its nose at.

My only real complaint, then, is that it’s a (mildly) technophobic comedy with a Le Tigre song on the soundtrack that’s somehow not “Get Off The Internet”???  Seems like an oversight.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)

The last time WrestleMania came through New Orleans, I indulged in a few of the smaller satellite shows that popped up around the city, including one put on by an extremely nerdy promotion out of NYC called Kaiju Big Battel.  Sitting in a brightly lit auditorium after midnight, watching a kaiju-themed wrestling show with a shockingly sober, wholesome crowd, was a one-of-a-kind delight — an experience I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully replicate.  The wrestlers were mostly costumed in giant plush outfits—dressed as hamburgers, 1950s robots, literal dust bunnies, and cans of soup—smashing each other into the cardboard cities that decorated the ring they used as a goofball playground.  I guess it’s possible to take an unfavorable view of an American company boiling down the kaiju genre to such broadly silly terms, considering its heartbreaking origins as an expression of post-nuclear Japanese national grief in the original Godzilla.  However, the further I dig into the Godzilla canon in recent months, the more I’m starting to realize just how faithful the Kaiju Big Battel brand of novelty wrestling is to its Godzilla roots; it’s just calling back to a later, decidedly kid-friendly era of Godzilla filmmaking detached from the giant lizard’s grim-as-fuck origins.

If there’s any one Godzilla movie that could be blamed for cheapening the monster’s brand with broadly silly slapstick comedy, it’s likely Godzilla vs Megalon.  Thanks to an ugly pan-and-scan transfer with an English dub that was allowed to temporarily slip into the public domain, it’s the Shōwa era Godzilla film that was most widely available to the American public for decades — lurking in creature-of-the-week television broadcasts, gas station DVD bargain bins, and MST3k target practice.  Godzilla vs Megalon appears to have a dire reputation as a result, diluting the larger Godzilla brand with misconceptions that the series was always dirt-cheap and aimed at little kids’ sensibilities.  I can’t personally attest to the quality of that much-seen pan-and-scan edit of Godzilla vs Megalon, but the Criterion restoration that’s currently steaming online is both beautifully colorful and wonderfully goofy. It was obviously a rushed, cheap production, but the kaiju battles have a distinct pro wrestling charm to them that makes for great late-night viewing, transporting me back to that Kaiju Big Battel show in the best way possible.  I can’t say the movie doesn’t deserve its reputation as the bottom of the kaiju media barrel, but now that the more important, prestigious Godzilla films are widely available in their original form, I think there’s a lot more room for audiences to appreciate the film’s delirious, Saturday Morning Cartoon silliness for what it is.

The humans-on-the-ground plot of Godzilla vs Megalon feels like repurposed scenes from a 1970s live-action Disney espionage comedy, by which I mean they’re not very memorable or worthy of discussion.  What’s really worth paying attention to here is the pro wrestling booking of the monster fights.  The film is a tag team match.  In one corner, we have the debut (and final) match of Megalon, a profoundly idiotic beetle worshiped by the underwater occultists of Seatopia.  In the other corner, we have the movie’s face: Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman rip-off robot with an insanely wide grin — also appearing in his debut (and final) match.  Neither contender is enough of a draw to carry the movie on their own, so they’re paired with charismatic tag team partners to help get them over with the crowd.  Megalon is paired with Gigan, a much lesser robo-Godzilla derivative than Mechagodzilla, whose non-presence essentially turns this into a squash match.  Jet Jaguar, of course, is paired with Godzilla, a legitimizing tag team partner whose popularity should have been able to forever endear his new robo-friend to children everywhere.  That proved to be an unsuccessful gamble in the long run (Jet Jaguar was never seen or heard from again), but Godzilla appears to have fun trying.  He performs here with the broadly expressive physical language of a wrestler playing to the backseats in a packed auditorium, aiming for big laughs and even bigger wrestling maneuvers that any kid should be delighted cheer on from the crowd.

To its credit, Godzilla vs Megalon does vaguely motion towards the eco-conscious concerns of larger Godzilla lore in its early goings, pitting both the kaiju and the underwater sea cult against us surface humans after our nuclear tests pollute the atmosphere.  The film isn’t earnestly about those themes, though, no more than it’s earnestly about Godzilla or Megalon.  This is Jet Jaguar’s show through & through, as evidenced by the grinning robot closing out the show with his own badass theme song — the same way pro wrestlers replay their entrance music while they lift newly-won championship belts in victory.  Jet Jaguar was created specifically for the film as contest entry from a small child (explaining the not-so-vague resemblance to Ultraman), which is a pretty blatant excuse to sell new kaiju toys & merch.  Because the production was rushed, underfunded, and marketed specifically at little kids’ sensibilities, there isn’t much destruction of towns or cities (outside some crudely inserted stock footage from better-funded Godzilla films), so most of the monster action is staged in an open field, away from the necessity of expensive miniatures.  The result is basically the movie version of Kaiju Big Battel: dudes in goofy costumes body slamming each other in fits of broad, slapstick humor.  It sucks that the kaiju genre was once only associated with that kind of silly novelty entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, especially now that the more serious end of the genre is more widely respected and readily accessible.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho Goreman (2021)

Psycho Goreman is the movie I most desperately wanted to see made when I was ten years old.  In other words, it’s an R-rated version of Power Rangers. The Astron-6-adjacent horror comedy deliberately evokes the live action Saturday morning TV programming of my youth in its tone & imagery, but ages up the humor of that vintage 90s Kids™ media with hack jokes about how believing in God is for rubes and wives are humorless nags.  I can’t say that novelty lands especially sweetly in my thirties, especially since its So Random! sense of humor is poisonously self-aware, but I’m convinced I would have absolutely loved it when I was still a child obsessed with monster movies & shock comedy — the same way I’m sure the world’s biggest fans of the equally unfunny Deadpool movies are the children who are technically too young to watch them but snuck them past their parents. 

At least Psycho Goreman is aware of its ideal audience, as evidenced by its explosively violent little-girl protagonist.  After bullying her soft-hearted brother into digging a massive hole in their backyard for her own sadistic delight, our audience-surrogate sociopath discovers a long-buried magical amulet that unleashes an ancient evil unto the world, à la The Gate.  The amulet affords her total command over the wicked monster that emerges—the titular Psycho Goreman—an intergalactic mass-murderer who’s embarrassed to be indentured to the “two brainless meat children” who discover his remote control.  It’s pretty much a hangout film from there.  Psycho Goreman delivers purposefully overwritten Pinhead speeches about the evil acts he’d like to commit once freed; his pint-sized girlboss makes him perform menial demeaning tasks for her own amusement instead; and an intergalactic council of outer space weirdos directly out of a Power Rangers episode plot to destroy “PG” while he’s temporarily indisposed.  It’s all very cute, even if the jokes it’s in service of aren’t very funny.

I’m not opposed to this type of ironic 90s Kid™ retro-nostalgia on principle.  If nothing else, I’ve enjoyed similar homages to the era’s cultural runoff in films like Brigsby Bear, Turbo Kid, and the actual Power Rangers reboot.  I just didn’t connect with the self-amused meta humor of this particular specimen in that genre, something I should have expected as soon as the similarly limp WolfCop trailer preceded it on my local library’s copy of the DVD.  Still, Psycho Goreman has a lot going for it visually, with enough practical gore, rubber-suit monsters, and stop-motion grotesqueries to pave over the dead silence of its jokes falling flat.  More importantly, while I’m no longer a taboo-craving ten-year-old, plenty of little weirdos out there still are.  If they can manage to sneak this naughty R-rated novelty past their parents while they’re still at the right age, it could birth a ton of lifelong horror nerds.  I’m choosing to count that as a net good, even if I’m not as personally enthusiastic about the movie as I wanted to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the children’s fantasy film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), a gently magical folktale about selkies from director John Sayles.

00:00 Welcome

01:00 Beastly (2011)
01:40 House of the Witch (2017)
02:22 The Eagle (2011)
03:28 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
05:51 The Core (2003)
06:51 Deadcon (2019)
08:30 The Wretched (2019)
09:50 Death Machine (1994)
12:00 The Hidden (1987)
13:55 The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988)
15:00 Over the Garden Wall (2014)
15:45 The Exorcist (1973)
18:22 Candyman (1992)
20:17 Promising Young Woman (2020)
22:23 Teeth (2007)
25:25 The Power (2021)

27:43 The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: The Secret of NIMH (1982)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the animated fantasy film The Secret of NIMH (1982), the directorial debut of Disney defector Don Bluth.

00:00 Welcome

01:56 Big (1988)
04:40 Avengers Grimm (2015)
06:52 247°F (2011)
07:41 Jacob’s Ladder (2019)
08:30 Fracture (2007)
09:45 The Net (1995)
11:26 The 6th Day (2000)
12:25 The Block Island Sound (2021)
13:50 The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
18:29 Love & Monsters (2020)
23:15 Pinocchio (2020)

25:45 The Secret of NIMH (1982)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2020)

And, thus, we’ve reached the time of year when I’m worst at self-selecting movies to watch, both in terms of picking out stuff I’ll like and at giving the movies themselves a fair chance on their own merits. It’s the mad rush before list-making season, where I make risky VOD rentals on movies that look like they might be “Best of Year Material” based on a few still images & scattered online reviews. That’s an unfair amount of pressure for any movie to sustain, since I tend to ask myself dumbass questions like “Was this worth paying money to rent this when it’ll likely be streaming free in a couple months?” or “This is good, but is it Best of the Year good?” In particular, it’s difficult to say if I would’ve enjoyed the French animated feature Marona’s Fantastic Tale more if I hadn’t watched it under such asinine circumstances. I’m at my most judgmental & least forgiving at this time of year, so I spent most of the film second-guessing whether I should have diverted my time & money to a more worthy list-contender. Again, real dumbass behavior.

I picked out Marona’s Fantastic Tale based solely on the promise of its cute, psychedelic animation style featured on the poster and Google image results. It did not disappoint there. The film’s colorful, free-flowing animation is consistently wonderful throughout, clashing crudely juvenile Crayola drawings with complex digital layering techniques to achieve a singularly dreamlike effect. The film is gorgeous as a visual showcase, playfully experimenting with the iconography of cultural touchstones as disparate as video games, circus posters, Impressionist painters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The only animated film I’ve seen this year that could claim to best in terms of innovation in craft is The Wolf House, and even that’s a tough call since this aims for imaginative beauty where The Wolf House conjures up something purely ugly & raw. It’s a total shame, then, that Marona doesn’t really amount to anything spectacular outside its visual feast. As much as I want to gush about its merits as a pure animation showcase, I can’t pretend those highs weren’t consistently undercut by its oppressively omnipresent narration & score.

The story begins with a dog, our narrator, dying in the street after being hit by car. The pup politely asks the audience to indulge her as she “rewinds the film of [her] life” in those final moments, which cues up a 90min birth-to-death flashback of her adventures in being a house pet. Marona’s Fantastic Tale is mostly a diary of the titular pupper being passed around the homes of various shitty owners while she endlessly muses about their strange human ways. It’s like a slightly more wholesome version of the feel-bad French dramedy Baxter, except that Baxter was at least aware of the social & political discomforts provoked by its constant, overbearing narration track. Marona’s tale is sometimes a little boring in its owner-to-owner sameness, but more importantly it’s often shockingly retrograde in its politics. It starts off on an awkward paw by equating societal racism to turf conflicts between different dog breeds (yikes), then gets even more uncomfortable in its weirdly backwards, rigid takes on the divisions of gender. Not only are the women depicted here vapid shopaholic bullies who only keep pets as fashion accessories (a stark contrast to the kind-hearted men in Marona’s life), but the dog itself is insistent on being gendered correctly when strangers call her “Boy” – a line of humor that’s not nearly as cute nor as insightful as the movie seems to think. The animation may be a forward-thinking glimpse into the future of the medium, but the screenplay feels like a dusty relic of a bygone era, as if it were an abandoned sequel to a Look Who’s Talking-type 80s comedy.

It’s possible that I might not have been as bothered by Marona’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus-level social observations had I not been scrutinizing it so closely as one of the year’s potential Important Works. Looking around on review aggregator sites like Metacritic & Letterboxd, it looks like I’m in the minority on being bothered by the film’s (likely unintentional) socio-political messaging. All I can report is that I found that ugly undertone to be insufferable when paired with its constant Inspo Music soundtrack that was violently fighting to pluck at my most sentimental heartstrings, as well as the narration’s cutesy observations like “Humans are strange creatures; it doesn’t take much to make them happy, and sometimes they realize that.” Considered in isolation, the animation style was just as wonderfully imaginative as I had hoped, and I’d even still recommend giving the film a look for that indulgence in pure visual artistry. The writing that provides the underlying structure for that indulgence is hugely disappointing, though, and I regret not waiting until it was streaming for free to relieve some of the pressure on it to be overwhelmingly Great.

-Brandon Ledet

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (2020)

I remember being thoroughly charmed by Aardman Animations’ Shaun the Sheep movie five years ago, but I don’t remember much of anything about the movie or what happens in it. I suspect that’s because not much of anything happens in it at all. Adapting the Wallace & Gromit spin-off series for the big screen meant having to upscale the adorable sheep’s stop-motion farmland hijinks with a trip to The Big City to mark the occasion. Aardman did a great job of downplaying that necessity, though, keeping Shaun’s fish-out-of-water antics amongst urban chaos as low-key & pleasantly charming as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that the sequel had to go even bigger in scale to justify its own existence and lost some of that low-key charm in the process. You can even feel the sequel’s mood-deflating excess in its Michael Bay flavored title, Farmageddon, which is maybe the exact opposite of what you’d want from a low-stakes animated comedy about a cute sheep.

In theory, I’m all for a War of the Worlds inspired sci-fi throwback within the Shaun the Sheep universe. The eerie theremin soundtrack cues, spooky green lights, and 1950s throwback UFOs that differentiate Farmageddon from the first Shaun the Sheep movie land it squarely in my aesthetic wheelhouse. It’s the cutesy, impish alien creature that toddles out of those UFOs that killed the mood for me. In a slightly altered repeat of the first film, Shaun has to travel into town to help an alien creature that crash landed near his farm find her spaceship so she can travel home. This prompts a very familiar series of gags where Shaun has to hide the fact that he’s a sheep operating undercover in People Places, except this time he’s also covering for a purple, childlike space alien who’s constantly hyperactive from guzzling too much candy & soda. I know I shouldn’t fault a kids’ movie for featuring an obnoxious, brightly colored alien mascot character with magical powers and a bottomless love for sugar; she’s not designed for my entertainment. Still, it’s an impossible fault to ignore, considering that all of the funniest gags in the film involve the sheep on the farm and not the sci-fi add-ons referenced in the title.

There’s no reason to be too harsh here. Although Farmageddon is nowhere near as successful as the first Shaun the Sheep movie, it’s still cute & charming enough to be worthy of a lazy-afternoon watch. Its space alien Poochie character and godawful Top 40s pop music soundtrack threaten to tank the entire enterprise, but the Aardman brand is too strong to allow that to happen. This is still an adorably animated stop-motion love letter to silent comedy greats of the past like Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati – one with winking Film Geek references to movies like Modern Times & 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it can use the brightly colored sugar rush of its alien mascot to hook younger children into that Antique Cinema nerdom (and sci-fi genre nerdom to boot), who am I to complain? I missed the low-key charms of the first film while tagging along behind that purple, sugar-addled beast, but Farmageddon still occasionally gave me something to smile about elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

A director couldn’t ask for a much more successful debut feature than the one Joe Cornish had with Attack the Block in 2011. Produced by nerd mascot Edgar Wright and introducing the world to future Star Wars lead John Boyega as a baby-faced teen, that small-budget creature feature has gradually transformed into a cult classic over the last eight years, drumming up a lot of anticipation for Cornish’s much-delayed follow-up. Of course, that kind of early success is a blessing and a curse, as it put a lot of pressure on Cornish’s sophomore effort to deliver something remarkable – an expectation it never truly lives up to. There’s nothing especially horrendous about Joe Cornish’s King Arthur modernization The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s occasionally charming & overall harmless, but also overlong & minor in a way that undercuts its potential. The excellence of Attack the Block weighs heavily on it in terms of expectation & anticipation, but also in highlighting how The Kid Who Would Be King underutilizes its urban London setting. We’ve seen Cornish stage an excellent modern fantasy horror in city streets before, so it’s hard to reconcile why he fails to repeat the formula on this second round.

Story-wise, there isn’t much deviation from the traditional Arthurian legend here besides the modern setting & the age of the players. After an opening illustration of the Arthurian template as told in a child’s picture book, we meet a pair of young, bullied kids who feel the weight of an increasingly grim world but are helpless against it. Newspapers declare “GLOOM,” “WAR,” “FEAR,” and “CRISIS” in bold headlines, and schoolyard bullies shake them down for chump change, recalling the curse of modern negativity that sets the table for Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Sensing that the world has become leaderless, heartless, and unprincipled, King Arthur’s long-dormant half-dragon/half-sister Morgana wakes from her underground brooding hole to attack London with her flaming skeleton army. It’s up to the bullied, gloomy kids (led by Andy Serkis’s offspring, Louis Ashbourne Serkis) to save London from serving Morgana as slaves in Hell, a destiny triggered by the discovery of a sword in a stone at a nearby construction site. A shapeshifting Merlin soon arrives to provide guidance & (much-needed) comic relief and the rest of the story essentially tells itself. The humor is cute but not hilarious. The action is decent but not spectacular. The modernization of Arthurian lore is consistent but not adventurous. The entire exercise is pleasantly executed, but not distinct enough to justify the effort of its sprawling runtime.

The inconsistency of The Kid Who Would be King’s success depends entirely on when it fully utilizes its urban London surroundings and when it gets lost in the rural wilderness. In the film’s best moments, kids slay demons on horseback in city streets & middle school hallways – action set pieces that fully realize the modernized Arthurian lore promised in the premise. The problem is that a large portion of the film wanders far away from the city and often feels like any other fantasy epic from the last forty years of cinema – just one with a modern budget & kids’ film sensibilities. Patrick Stewart is even featured in a recurring cameo as one of Merlin’s many forms, directly referencing the 1981 feature Excalibur, a cornerstone of the genre. The Kid Who Would Be King also shoots itself in the foot by namechecking the protagonists of more successful modernized fantasy genre exercises like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson (or, in the bullies’ parlance and one of the film’s only successful one-liners, Percy Jockstrap), each of which did a much more convincing job bringing ancient fantasy elements to the city streets instead of the other way around. That’s not even to mention the more low-budget, artsy-fartsy examples the film could have emulated like A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, and appropriately enough, Attack the Block. Too much of The Kid Who Would Be King loses sight of the modern, urban allure of its premise and drifts hundreds of miles away from London streets – and every minute wasted in that wilderness is a bore.

I can’t come down on this movie too harshly. There’s plenty of minor pleasures to enjoy throughout, even if those flashes of joy are buried under a lumbering runtime. Angus Imrie is adorable as the teenage version of Merlin and feels like the arrival of a fresh comic presence. The synthy score provided by Electric Wave Bureau recalls the golden age of 80s fantasy cheese of films like Ladyhawke & Legend in just the right way. I’ll even admit that the inherent Britishness of Arthurian lore and the unfair expectation set by the excellence of Attack the Block might have been preventing me from enjoying what’s ultimately a harmless, competently staged children’s adventure film. Still, I was outright bored by any sequence that took place outside the streets of London, which made up for an alarming portion of a film that did not need to be two hours long to begin with. The benefit of retelling stories like The King Arthur legend is that audiences are already familiar with the template, which frees you up to play with the details. If you only modernize the story halfway, you can only expect the result to be halfway interesting, and we’ve already seen Joe Cornish achieve something much more substantial than that with a comparable setting & budget.

-Brandon Ledet

Show Dogs (2018)

Show Dogs is the most bizarrely problematic talking animal film I’ve seen in theaters since the Kevin Spacey talking cat pic Nine Lives two summers ago. It’s so problematic, in fact, that its own studio has since censored scenes of the film deemed dangerous for children’s well-being, something I learned was going to happen a mere hour after I left the cinema. Dangerous, censored, transgressive art is far from the first descriptor that leaps to mind when you set expectations for a children’s movie starting Ludacris as a rapping Rottweiler, but the original unedited version of Show Dogs is now effectively a renegade, outlawed production officially deemed morally unfit for public consumption. Its uncensored form, which screened in theaters nationwide only for the span of a week, has been orphaned as a lost art scene moment, a cinematic event. Banishing its real-world evil back into the pits of Hell was a necessary action Global Road Entertainment should be proud of taking, as the message its deleted footage was sending kids was genuinely risking their safety. Its deletion is also beneficial to adults looking to the ill-advised production for a stray whiff of absurdism, raising the film’s value from sub-Air Bud atrocity to a The Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail. Show Dogs is now one of the premier cinematic events of 2018, if not only for what footage it’s lost.

The rapping Rottweiler voiced by Ludacris is an undercover cop from a confusing universe where animals can talk, but humans don’t understand them. Their flapping CGI mouths form full sentences and they hold real jobs in offices and everything, but humans just hear barks & meows and so on. At one point a dog even complains, “Why can’t people understand what dogs say?” I don’t know; you tell us. It’s your confusing universe. Anyway, the toughest cop on the force is assigned to go undercover as a show dog (Hey, that’s the name of the show) in a heist plot to rescue a stolen, abused baby panda from underground dealers of rare & exotic animals. Keeping with the tropes of every buddy cop movie ever, he’s teamed up with another hard-ass hothead (Will Arnett in full TMNT mode), a human partner who must learn to collaborate with the canine cop & trust his instincts. The reluctant partners build a heist team meant to prepare the undercover pup for passing as a primped & groomed show dog, most notably including Natasha Lyonne as a pet stylist (with an incredible sense of style of her own; she looks fantastic here) & Stanley Tucci as a former Best in Show champion chihuahua with a snotty French sensibility. The team pull through to save the day, never discovered as frauds, and return the stolen baby panda back to its family (in captivity, weirdly). They even learn a few life lessons (and scar a few thousand children who caught the film early enough in its run) along the way.

The thread that has been removed from Show Dogs is one about grooming, but not the kind you might expect given the film’s setting. One of the cop-dog’s biggest hurdles in remaining undercover as a show dog is the Judge’s Inspection segment of the competition, in which dog show panelists must physically handle the dogs’ genitals. A street-tough police dog, Ludacris’s canine lead Max struggles to endure this indignity without instinctively turning around to bite the person invading his privacy. He’s coached out of this instinct by Arnett & Tucci, who train him to “go to his happy place,” mentally dissociating while his “private parts” are being handled without his consent. The climactic triumph of the film is a sequence in which he mentally transports to a psychedelic Eden where Arnett & Lyonne tell him he’s a good boy and reenact the climax of Dirty Dancing with him against a background of kaleidoscopic fireworks . . . all while his genitals are being inspected by a stranger. Can you see why this might be a dangerous life lesson to teach impressionable children? It wasn’t lost on the concerned parents of the mommy blogosphere. One (rightfully) alarmist piece written by Terina Maldonado of East Mesa Macaroni Kid gained enough traction to have Global Road Entertainment pull the footage from the film. The “happy place” tactic is explained in that piece to be a very real method that real-life child molesters use to “groom” their young victims into unquestioning compliance, a factoid I can’t believe I typed without vomiting. Maldonado’s account of Show Dogs is extremely (and understandably) fixated on this aspect of the film’s plot, making me assume it was going to be a consistent throughline throughout the film. Instead, it is (or was) contained to a single training montage & a climactic exchange with the dog show judge. At first, the limited amount of “private parts inspection” footage made me question just how potentially impactful the film’s grooming message really was. When the judge’s inspection is met with a dead-silent horror atmosphere where the soundtrack is overwhelmed by the dog’s pounding heartbeat, however, there’s nothing you can qualify the exchange as but a rape scene. In a kids’ movie. About talking animals. Evil, but also incredible that it ever screened at all.

The dark truth about Show Dogs is that even with the genital molestation/”happy place” narrative thread removed, the film is still deeply flawed on a moral level. At its heart, this is a film about toxic masculinity (You thought it was about adorable talking animals? Fool!), but it’s also a perpetuator of toxic masculinity. Max is “a street dog with a temper” that has to learn life lessons like “Maybe it’s not the worst idea to get some help,” which is a much more adorable sentiment to convey to kids than the one that’s been censored into oblivion. What’s uncomfortable about his gradual change of heart is the way this “alpha” dog (speaking of canine terms that have evil cultural contexts elsewhere) is characterized in opposition to the implied frivolity & vanity of the show dog world, something more femme than his masc sensibilities can handle without embarrassment. It’s weird enough that other dogs allude to the size of Max’s dick, that a lady-pigeon (voiced by Kate Micucci) fawns over his gruff masculinity in lines like “He can flip this bird any day,” and that he’s taught humility in a scene where Arnette & Lyonne wax his anus (again, without consent). What’s really fucked is where he & Arnett finally bond when the owner chooses to not force him to breed against his will with an over-the-top flamboyant pup voiced by RuPaul. Now, in-film, RuPaul’s character is gendered as a female dog, but the gag plays as bizarrely homophobic anyway, as his over-the-top vocal performance (which includes a number of Drag Race catchphrases) disgusts Max in a way that reads distinctly as gay panic humor. Like with all of Show Dog’s sins against good taste & morality, its homophobia & toxic masculinity are bizarrely complex to the point of absurdity.

There are plenty of standard, cheap camp thrills to be found in Show Dogs’s minor joys as a 2010s, theatrically released talking-dog movie, a leftover relic from another time. I could try to sell this movie to you as an absurdist joy for watching Ludacris’s talking cop-dog perform impossible acrobatic maneuvers through cheap CGI or deliver hacky one-liners like “This is ludicrous!” or “I’m about to take a bite out of crime.” The truth is, though, that minor pleasures like Shaq voicing a Zen sheepdog named Doggy Lama or CGI dogs dabbing are just background noise for the film’s main draw: its propensity for real-world evil. Even with its “private parts inspection” narrative rightly removed, Show Dogs still has a genuinely menacing, toxic undertone that’s impressive in both its audacity & its cluelessness. Although its absurdist joys are minor, it’s a movie that must be seen to be believed (especially its original, intact “grooming” cut), as it’s tough to fathom how this many people, from the executives at Global Road down to the on-set catering crew, allowed it to happen. It’s more of a man-made disaster than a feature film in that way and all we can do as audiences is rubberneck at the wreckage. Don’t allow children to gaze at this atrocity, however; what they see could be scarring.

-Brandon Ledet