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    Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

    After the superb 2013 documentary about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I wasn’t sure that there was much left explore on the topic. And when I recently learned that GKIDS had released another documentary about Miyazaki last year, Never-Ending Man, the trailers and clips that I watched gave me the impression that it would largely be a meditation on mortality and the inevitable entropy of diminishing physical and mental capacities that come with aging. And it is. But it is also so, so much more.

    The documentary opens with the press conference in 2013 when Miyazaki announced his retirement. Again. But this time, he assured us, he meant it. It then jumps ahead a couple of years, and we find Miyazaki puttering around his personal studio every day, still somehow managing to find art projects to occupy his time and attention, all day, every day. There are some melancholy shots of the Studio Ghibli building, now shuttered and empty. The documentarian following him around with a camera is literally in the room when Miyazaki gets the phone call that a former employee of Ghibli has just passed away, on two separate occasions. Miyazaki seems worn out and drawn, talking a lot about mortality and how his time has passed.

    After a chance encounter with a group of young CGI animators leads him to reopen Studio Ghibli and begin work on a new short film, we see Miyazaki gradually become re-energized. The process is not without its pitfalls, but the act of starting a new project and seeing it to completion seems to reignite something in him, and by the end of the documentary his outlook appears to have completely changed. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling how it all unfolds, but there is a moment at the end where Miyazaki has made the decision to keep working until he dies. It would be better, he says, than simply stopping and then wait around for death to claim him. Better, he says, to die with something to live for.

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    Carmen Sandiego Season Two

    Back near the beginning of the year I raved about Netflix’s new original animated series, Carmen Sandiego, which was an unexpected treasure. It took a property that I was never personally invested in, and turned it into a thrilling superspy adventure with healthy doses of educational content. Well, we finally had a chance to watch the new episodes that were released last month, and the second season is even better than the first. The plot twists are twistier, the action set pieces are brilliantly choreographed, the laughs are more frequent… The ten episodes in the season almost function as one long narrative, with cliffhangers ending almost every episode and each new episode picking up right where the previous one left off. Big secrets are revealed, and even bigger questions are uncovered, yet to be answered. There is genuine diversity here, as well, both in terms of the cast of characters, but also the settings and the cultures being depicted.

    I loved the first season of the show, but I really loved the second. Carmen Sandiego is one of the best TV shows currently in production, on broadcast, cable, or streaming, and I really hope that it finds a large enough audience that they can keep making new seasons for a long time to come.

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    The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

    I was twelve years old when The Dark Crystal was released to theaters in December 1982, and I couldn’t have been more primed for it. I was already a huge fan of Jim Henson and the Muppets and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. I have distinct memories of watching the movie in the theater and being absolutely blown away by it. In the months that followed I read and reread the novelization by A.C.H. Smith, was glued to the screen when The World of the Dark Crystal making-of documentary aired on PBS, hunted down every behind the scenes article I could find in Starlog magazine and the like (though I didn’t learn about Brian Froud’s The World of the Dark Crystal book until many, many years later when it was reissued in an upscale hardcover edition, which I immediately purchased).

    I rewatched the movie a few times over the years, and while the sense of wonder and awe that the wholly fabricated world instilled in me never went away, I came to recognize that it was not a flawless work. The principle focus of the creators had always clearly been on the world and its inhabitants, and the technical challenges of realizing them through puppetry and practical effects, but the writing admittedly appeared to be a secondary concern. On the level of plot, the protagonists win in the end simply by dogged determination, but no choices or decisions that they make along the way have any bearing on the outcome. They survive long enough to be in the right place at the right time, and then the story abruptly ends without any hint about what comes next. And even on the level of dialogue itself in many cases the writing was done well after the fact. Until very far into the film’s postproduction the Skeksis did not speak English, but only gibberish that was improvised by the puppeteers on set, and early test audiences were deeply confused and unable to figure out what was meant to be happening. Only then did Jim Henson and screenwriter David Odell write dialogue for the characters, syncing the words to fit the mouth flaps of the puppets in the finished shots. Thankfully, the finished result only added to the otherworldliness of the scenes, with the odd rhythms and cadences of characters like the Chamberlain’s and the General’s dialogue in particular.

    Still, I love the original movie whole-heartedly, and recognize that it was a crucial influence on my developing tastes as a kid. So when I learned earlier this year that there was to be a prequel series on Netflix, I greeted the news with some trepidation. I had not kept up with the comic book spinoffs that had appeared over the years, and was not even aware of the middle grade novels of J.M. Lee (which the series draws on even more heavily than I realized while watching it), and in my ignorance I remember worrying whether the mythology and lore of the world of the Dark Crystal was extensive enough to support a ten-hour-long miniseries.

    I have seldom enjoyed being wrong more than this, because the world-building that has gone into fleshing out the setting, the cultures, and the mythos the world in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is staggering. And staggeringly good.

    The puppetry is among some of the best that I’ve ever seen, and breaks new ground in using new technology and techniques in order to keep most of the performances practical and in camera as possible. CGI is used sparingly, and in ways that never draws attention to itself, and while I found that I seldom ever even bothered to wonder how a particular shot was accomplished, after watching the making-of documentary The Crystal Calls I learned that several creatures and characters who I had assumed were entirely CGI were in fact practical puppets, operated by puppeteers erased digitally by green screen.

    The voice cast is a murderers’ row of talent, each of them sinking their teeth into the roles and making the most of it. The cinematography is stunning, the editing never misses a beat, the musical score is note perfect. There were twists and turns in the plot that I didn’t see coming, and new characters introduced who at once challenged my expectations and immediately suggested entirely new possibilities for stories that could be told in that world. (I would happily watch a spin-off series of two eccentric hermits that we meet in the course of the series, even if it was just the two of them hanging out, bickering intermittently between hugs, and putting on little shows.)

    After finishing the series last week, we immediately rewatched the original movie the following night (and the making-of documentary on Netflix the night after that), and if anything this new prequel enriches the experience of viewing the original. It provides context and additional meaning for stuff that was there from the beginning, but in often subtle ways. And there are mirrors and echoes in the prequel to things from the original film that I did not pick up on until rewatching it.

    It’s my understanding from interviews that I’ve read that a second season of the series is a possibility, if this first season does well enough. I am finding it difficult to type with all of my fingers crossed, because I very, very much hope that there is more of The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. If you have not yet checked it out, I highly recommend it.

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    Star Wars: Myths & Fables

    Last night I finished reading Star Wars: Myths & Fables, written by my old pal George Mann and illustrated by Grant Griffin, which turns out to be the Star Wars book I’ve been waiting for my whole life without realizing it, and it was well worth the wait.

    As the title implies, this is a collection of short stories that all function as fairy tales, myths, and fables, set in the Star Wars universe. But the clever twist here is that these are stories as they would be told in the world of Star Wars. As in, these are tales that might be read to children on Tatooine at bed time, or shared in the cockpit of a longhaul freighter. And by telling the stories from the perspective of people in that world with a sometimes incomplete understanding of the context and details of what’s happening, it takes Star Wars away from the science fictional trappings that it usually wears and back to its fantasy and fairy tale roots. There are no Jedi knights with lightsabers here, only mysterious wanderers in brown robes with swords that seem to glow with an inner light. Familiar villains make an appearance, but here transformed into mysterious menacing figures in cautionary tales to keep the unruly in line. There are dragons, and witches, and pirates, and youngest siblings off on quests, but it’s all Star Wars, and it all works perfectly.

    I found the book shelved in the kids’ section at Powell’s Books, but it really is “All Ages” in the purest sense of the term, as I think this would appeal equally to young readers as to adults. Any Star Wars fan interested in seeing a little more fantasy than space in their space fantasy should consider checking it out.

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    It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage

    Thirty-eight years ago today saw the debut of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ve been on a serious Indiana Jones kick since returning from Walt Disney World a couple of months ago, and after rewatching all of the movies (and starting in on the Young Indiana Jones made-for-tv movies, the Rob MacGregor novels, the Marvel comics, etc., et al.), I realized that character in his various outing and incarnations had a bigger influence on my tastes and interests, both in terms of what kind of stories I like to read and watch and what kinds of stories I like to tell, than any other single piece of media. As much as I loved Star Wars and Star Trek, Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Tarzan and Doc Savage, or any one of a hundred other great shows, movies, and comics, there’s probably more Indiana Jones DNA in my makeup than any other fictional character or imaginary world. It probably helped that I was exactly the right age for Raiders when it was released–I was two months away from my eleventh birthday, my mental cement still wet enough that I was very impressionable–but there are elements borrowed from that first movie that crop up in virtually everything that I write, whether consciously or not.

    It’s only been a month or so since I rewatched it last, but I think I might need to pop in the Blu-ray and fire up Raiders again tonight, in honor of the occasion. Or maybe I’ll just queue up the John Williams soundtrack as I put some time into my current work-in-progress, which definitely has more than a little Indiana Jones-inspired elements in the mix…