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The influence of acclaimed Japanese animation wizard Hayao Miyazaki is clear in “Mia and the Migoo,” an award-winning film from French director Jacques-Rémy Girerd.  It has a Miyazaki-like brave young heroine on an eco-themed journey and random encounters with grotesque characters. And, like Miyazaki, Girerd remains committed to traditional, hand-drawn animation, a welcome shift from computer-created images.

But “Mia” incorporates some of Miyazaki’s weaknesses – narrative incoherence and a remote, chilly quality – while never reaching the soaring visual or emotional scope of “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” or even “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” And a weak script feels like “Ferngully 3: Revenge of the Developers.”

Mia (voice of Amanda Misquez) is a little girl in an unidentified South American country.  Her father, Paulo (voice of Joaquin Mas) has taken a dangerous job far from home to earn money to take care of her.  As he works on a luxury homes construction project in a pristine part of the rainforest, he is trapped in a landslide.  Mia immediately senses that her father needs her.  She visits her mother’s grave to say goodbye and sets off to find him.

The man behind the construction project is Jekhide (voice of John DiMaggio of “Futurama”), a callous bully who relies on bribes, intimidation, and worse to get the project done.  Gunpowder is “the smell of brute strength and power,” he tells his kind-hearted young son, Aldrin (voice of Vincent Agnello).  “I’ll take that flame-thrower as well,” Jekhide tells a weapons dealer (voice of James Woods), as he prepares to hunt down the mysterious creature that has been obstructing the builders.

 

The Yeti-like creature is the Migoo, guardian of an “Avatar”-style Tree of Life.  Mia and Aldrin will have to help the Migoo guard the tree or all life on earth will be at risk.

 

The Migoo are lumpen, golem-like muddy figures who are so dim-witted and consumed with bickering it is hard to imagine that they could protect a paperclip.  But briefly there is one intriguing suggestion that they – it – is/are not several entities but a single one, at the same time big and small, many and one.  This echoes Mia’s mystic connection to her father, somehow waking, hundreds of miles away, the instant that he was in trouble, as well as the theme of the film about our interconnectedness to our environment.  But it quickly gets lost in an unbalanced, too-many-cooks script (five credited writers).  Distracting flashes of crude humor dissipate any connection to the characters and odd encounters derail the momentum.  And the climax muddles its own message.

 

The total control permitted by computer-generated animation has achieved and even exceeded photography to reach a kind of hyper-realism, liberating the few remaining practitioners of hand-drawn animation to experiment with a more free-form, impressionistic form of story-telling.  Recent masterpieces of animation like “Coraline” or the “Triplets of Belleville” are thrilling demonstrations of strong personal taste rejecting many of the tools offered by computer graphics in favor of a distinctive personal vision.

 

This freedom puts even more of an obligation to make each artistic choice in service of the story.  “Mia and the Migoo” does have some striking images with strong blocks of color. They would be impressive illustrations in a book.  But animation, as the word indicates, is about movement.  The lack of fluidity in “Mia” is not an artistic choice; it is inadequacy that in close-ups recalls the lips-only action in old “Clutch Cargo” cartoons.

 

Girerd makes the odd choice of outlining most of his figures with a glowing alizarin crimson.  It may be intended to suggest the heat of global warming but it makes them look bruised.  Red underpainting seems to add a radioactive glow to the backgrounds as well, highly out of place for a movie which celebrates the rich greens and blues of fertile vegetation and life-giving waters.

Kelefa Sanneh has a thoughtful essay in the New Yorker about “reality television,” how it developed, why it fascinates us, and how “real” it really is.  From the Loud family to “Jersey Shore,” they are based on the idea of peeking into the lives of real people in their homes and with their friends and families or putting them in highly artificial situations to see how they react.  Whether a “glamorous competition” or a “homely documentary,” “reality shows still provide a fat target for anyone seeking symptoms or causes of American idiocy; the popularity of unscripted programming has had the unexpected effect of ennobling its scripted counterpart.”

Sanneh discusses serious, even scholarly books about reality television.  Jennifer L. Pozner in Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV says that while they may appear to portray extremes and transgressive behavior, reality shows reinforce particular social norms.  The greedy are punished.  The deserving are rewarded.  The lost are found and the lesser are made more.  Sanneh finds some of this analysis reductive, noting that “one of the form’s greatest strengths” is that its stars “unlike their scripted counterparts, outlive their shows, and sometimes find ways to defy them.”

Perhaps because it is more focused, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity by Brenda R. Weber, a professor of gender studies at Indiana University, is better able to support its conclusions.

Weber sees in these makeover programs a strange new world—or, more accurately, a strange new nation, one where citizenship is available only to those who have made the transition “from Before to After.” Weber notices that, on scripted television, makeovers are usually revealed to be temporary or unnecessary: “characters often learn that though a makeover is nice, they were really just fine in their Before states.” On reality television, by contrast, makeovers are urgent and permanent; “the After-body, narratively speaking, stands as the moment of greatest authenticity.” We have moved from the regressive logic of the sitcom, in which nothing really happens, to the recursive logic of the police procedural, in which the same thing keeps happening—the same detectives, solving and re-solving the same crimes.

Of course there is no such thing as “reality” television.  The camera angles, the selection of shots, the music, the pacing all influence our reaction as audience members.  And the Heisenberg principle states that molecules behave differently when they are observed.  So do people.  The people who are supposed to be so ordinary, so “real” become celebrities.  “Jersey Shore’s” Snooki, whose primary occupations seem to be drinking and tanning, was in the headlines for getting a higher speaker’s fee for a recent college appearance than the distinguished poet Maya Angelou.  This was shortly after Snooki was in the headlines for being in a brawl.  Kate Gosselin went from being just another mom with a few more kids than most to getting Jennifer Aniston-style coverage when her marriage broke up (for reasons not unrelated to the intense media pressure and shock of “stardom”).  The smart and lucky ones get book deals and product lines.  Others do not do as well.  That is one part of reality television that is really real.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood reports that esteemed publisher Scholastic is sending out “teaching materials” to schools that amounts to a commercial for coal power.  The coal industry, through the American Coal Foundation, has hired Scholastic to produce The United States of Energy, sent to tens of thousands of 4th grade classrooms around the country.  CCFC says:

Teachers are told that the curriculum aligns with national standards because it teaches children the advantages and disadvantages of different types of energy.  But while the lessons do extol the advantages of coal, they fail to mention a single disadvantage.  Nothing about the Appalachian mountains chopped down to get at coal seams.  Nothing about the poisons released when coal is burned.  Nothing about the fact that burning coal is the single biggest contributor to human-created greenhouse gases.

Schools should teach fully and honestly about coal and other forms of energy.  However, the materials produced by Scholastic are not genuinely educational; they are industry PR.

With budget cuts and inadequate resources, it is tempting to take advantage of these kinds of “free” materials created with industry support.  But schools should not present commercial material as a part of the curriculum — unless it is to teach children how to separate advocacy from objective, balanced information.  To protest this slanted information masquerading as a book and degradation of the Scholastic imprint, write to Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson.

I always have a lot of fun with Betty Jo Tucker of Movie Addict Headquarters — in this week’s episode, A. J. Hakari joined us for a talk about the summer movies of 2011.